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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Day of the Dead 2014: Symbolism and Colors

On an altar in the main square of San Miguel de Allende, November 2, 2014

Day of the Dead:  Symbolism and Colors

by Victoria Challancin

In Mexico, my adopted home, we dance with death on a near-daily basis, but never as we do on el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when real communication with the dead is believed possible.  

Together, dear Readers, we have talked about The Poetry of Death, sampled the alfeñiques or sugar skulls/figures, strolled through the Day of the Dead Markets, we have built altars, visited altars, and seen even more altars, enjoyed the food...together we have done all this, and yet I know, that if you are a non-Mexican reader, you no doubt find it all strange, if not disturbingly macabre.

In a past post, I summed it up as I best know how:  ...with all the death imagery, that constant reminder of our mortality, humor permeates all.  In Mexico, it is not that loss isn't felt, that grief isn't present, or even that sadness isn't is more that a sensible perspective exists, allowing us to feel the sorrow, remember those who have most touched our lives, and always know that death is an inevitable part of life.  Death.  The one inevitable experience that no once can escape.  No one.

Reams have been written about Mexico's celebration of the Day of the Dead and its obsession with Death.  Reams.  Volumes.  Often I read that it is an example of how Mexicans laugh at death.  I don't believe that Mexicans laugh at death at all, rather they "celebrate" death as a means of staying connected and honoring those that they love, those who have passed on--albeit in a joyful and colorful way.  No dreary mourning here.  Instead, we have a vivid connection to the Cycle of Life.

The indigenous peoples of Mexico, such as the Nahua, Purepecha, Totonac, and Otomí believed that the souls of the dead return yearly to visit with their relatives.  And they come laughing, drinking, dancing, singing and generally being merry, just as when they were alive.  There is surely a message for us all here--seize the moment and live!

“The Mexican... is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”     Octavio Paz, Mexican Poet and Writer

(Note:  November 1st is known as All Saints Day and the 2nd is All Souls Day--the days when the dead return to us each year).   

Instead of wearing masks and costumes meant to scare away the evil spirits, Mexicans offer beauty in the form of floral arrangements, favorite sweets and food, and photos to both remember and welcome the loved ones who have passed on.

The Symbolism and Meaning of the Colors
The most common colors seen on the altars for Day of the Dead are purple, yellow, orange, white, red, and pink.  Each one carries its own meaning.

Purple:  suffering, pain, loss, and grief

Yellow/Orange:  the brilliance of the sun and a new day

White:  purity, promise, and hope

Red:  the blood of life which sustains not only the body but the soul and a symbol of sacrifice

Pink:  celebration and joy

A Catrina

Why Skeletons?
They dance, they prance, they cavort, they sing, they eat, and laugh.  They represent those who are no longer with us in the flesh, but are with us in spirit.  They remind us that they are still here, still a part of us, and they remind us literally of what is inside every one of us--our skeleton, representing our inner selves, our souls.  They also remind us of the good things in life:  good wine, family, eating, singing, dancing, and playing.  And they do it so well.

A friend and her partner dressed as a Catrina and a Catrín
Calaveras, or Skulls
In addition to the entire skeleton, the heads, or skulls alone are a beloved emblem for the Day of the Dead.  Often depicted in humorous settings, they can be caricatures of famous people such as actors or politicians, musicians, dancers, policemen, and revolutionaries.  The most iconic of these symbols come from the works of artist José Guadalupe Posada whose 19th century engravings form the basis of the beloved Catrina figure  (see above).  Note as well that the pre-Columbian Mexicans viewed the skull as a symbol of life, rather than death.

The Marigolds
Cempazuchitl, the Náhuatl or Aztec word for marigold, act as symbols for death in ancient Mesoamerican mythology.  Often they are seen broken open, so that their petals can be used to lead the dead home where they are honored and prayed for by their loved ones.  They are also woven into arches and left whole in vases or growing in pots--the "flower of the dead."  These flowers are also called zempasuchil. cempasuchil, or zempasuchitl.

Las Ofrendas, or Offerings
Favorite foods of the beloved are always offered on the altars.  You will see sugar cane, oranges, apples, pan de muerto, peanuts, seeds, beanstequila, beer, tamales, refried beans, charro beans, nixtamal, tacos, enchiladas, and more.  Photos always are lovingly placed alongside the food offerings.  Toys, pipes, hats, and other personal belongings also find their way to the altars.

Papel Chino or Papel Picado
The beautifully and often intricately cut tissue paper designs can been seen decorating not only altars, but also homes, streets, neighborhoods, and shops.  They often show skeletons cavorting in their very human ways, displaying the same antics as the living.  This delicate tissue also represents the wind and the fragility of life.

Pan de Muerto
One of the staple foods on any altar is pan de muerto, or "bread of the dead," which symbolizes the souls of the departed.  This slightly sweet egg bread can be found in a variety of shapes from simple round with crosses or bones atop them to elaborate skulls and skeletons.  

Candles and Incense
The candles, or fire,  are meant to guide the spirits to their final resting place as well as help them return to visit the living.  Incense also helps to carry the soul along, with soft scents, on its journey.

Alfeñiques, or Sugar Figures
Although I have written extensively about alfeniques before, and shown lovingly made examples from the local Day of the Dead Market, no post about Day of the Dead can miss mentioning these whimsical sugar figures, made with powdered sugar, egg whites, and a vegetable adhesive made of lemon.  Check out the link above for many examples of the types of sugar figures Mexicans put on their home altars.

Day of the Dead
San Miguel de Allende, México

Parting Shot:  
A Degas-esque ballerina offering, made by a precious Mexican friend and her father

Please ask permission before using text or photos.  Thank you!

Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

An amazing post as always Victoria! They have a great attitude towards death. It is inevitable but I love the idea of celebrating a life well lived :D

Eha said...

Vicki - this is brilliant . . .well we all know you are a teacher sans pareil! I cannot make a meaningful comment at this stage [as I have had difficulty during the past two years] but this will be 'tucked away' for the quiet evening hours to read, learn and try to assimilate . . . Evocative photos to keep . . .hugs from across the Pond . . .

joan nova said...

Wonderful photos. I spent several hours yesterday at The Day of the Dead celebration in Fort Lauderdale yesterday. It was so colorful and I had a great time taking photos of all the wonderful costumes and enthusiastic people.

Hotly Spiced said...

It's only in recent years that I've heard of 'Day of the Dead'. It's certainly not something that's celebrated in Oz (we don't have that many Mexican migrants). I do love how colourful and festive it is and how the idea is remember and celebrate those you have lost xx

lydiajane said...

Beautifully done, so expressive and such vivid photos. Thank you for sharing them with us.

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

This seems like a strange day to those of us that don't understand it…thanks again for explaining it in such great detail. I was wondering, what happens to all the food when this celebration is over?

Maureen | Orgasmic Chef said...

What an outstanding post! I never knew there was so much I didn't know about Day of the Dead. I love the symbolism and the colors and the pure celebration.

Victoria Challancin said...

THank you all for your lovely comments. Karen, as far as I know, the food is just thrown away. It sits out for days, existing more as an offering of love and a remembrance of what the loved one enjoyed eating most in life. I always find the food offerings in homes so touching.

House in Tillford said...

What a vibrant way to celebrate those you lost. Great pictures

Shiva Shakthi said...

Great blog!!! thanks for sharing with us... wqaiting for your upcoming updates...
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