Monday, October 31, 2011

A Happy Day

Outside of Mexico, the Day of the Dead appears silly, if not outright bizarre. What else can be made out of dangling skeletons, skulls made of every imaginable material, including sugar, and macabre monsters of all kinds?

Yet, after a visit to Mexico City, which by chance happened around this Mexican holiday, I see things a bit differently.

“This is my favorite day of the year,” confessed a woman-professor at a local University.
“It gives us a chance to get together with the entire family, and to reminisce about our departed loved ones. We always have such a fun time.”

Fun? In the family of my in-laws on Upper West Side, such occasion would generate tearful silences, soul-searching conversations, and would be considered a generally traumatic experience. Not so in Mexico. The special bread they make for this day is sweet, and they eat it with chocolate. They also make a favorite dish of their grandmothers, lost uncles and cousins, and savor it together.  In an unusual way, the Day of Dead becomes a cause for spontaneous mass creativity. Curious altars are created in every home, like mini-museums of the passed family history.  There is nothing didactic or sad about those displays. Personal items of the remembered, the aroma of food and marigold flowers, fire of a candle, tissue paper ornaments, fluttering in the wind, period music – all this contributes to a complex multisensory experience.

It is believed that the dead consider it disrespectful to see grieving at their altar. 
Blogger RWordplay said...

How fortunate that you were not only present but also to enjoy something of a guided tour of the Holiday. It is a curious practice and one that suggests to me a consciousness of a real proximity to death.

Death, not as the unwelcome stranger, but the neighbor coming for a cup of sugar, the neighbor who borrows tools but seldom returns them. I suspect it is all an exercise in borders, facades and masks, all in the most practical sense of these words.

We in the rational West, lifted the sheets off ghosts and explained away things that go bump in the night centuries ago. Our monsters are inevitably human. Still, this proximity leaves me uncomfortable. Can it also explain the tens-of-thousands murdered in the last few years, some murdered with the kind callousness and brutality that we thought we buried at the end of the Second World War, or finally put a stake in the heart in the more recent wars in the Balkans. If all that separates the living from the dead is little more than a semi-transparent curtain why should homicidal impulses be resisted?

November 6, 2011 at 9:22 PM  
Blogger Kate Lord Brown said...

I have a little dancing skeleton from Mexico with roses in her hair that sat on my desk at home - a great memento mori to enjoy it all while it lasts. (Also there was a wonderful Day of the Dead exhibition at the much missed Ethnographic Museum off Piccadilly about 15 years ago - huge papier mache skeletons flying and cavorting, a riot of colour and exuberance in the old dark rooms, unforgettable).

November 22, 2011 at 2:10 AM  

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