We’ve been awakened by many different unusual noises in Mexico: braying burros, phone call announcements, marching music, and howler monkeys. The morning of November 1st in San Cristobal de la Casas, it was church bells and fireworks. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday that has evolved in Mexico over hundreds of years, combining both pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions. Pre-Hispanic Mexicans traditionally welcomed the visiting spirits of the dead into their homes a week after the autumn equinox by building arches of yellow marigolds over the doorways to provide a portal for the spirits to enter our world. Food and drink were placed under the arches to welcome the spirits when they arrived. After the Spanish conquest, this pre-Hispanic celebration was combined with the Catholic holidays on November 1 and 2 of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which shared similar traditions. These traditions have continued to evolve, and today people celebrate by visiting the graves of departed loved ones, decorating the graves with marigold flowers, pine needles, food and drink, building altars in their households, and visiting with family.
We entered the church and carefully made our way across the stone floor, slippery with a layer of pine needles. Cesar explained to us that this church is no longer under the control of the Vatican, and priests are only allowed to visit monthly to baptize newborns. Statues of saints in glass display boxes lined the church, many of their faces covered with colorful clothes, so that the spirits of bad people who had returned for the day would not be able to look at their faces. People sat in a large circle around the altar in the middle of the church, sharing posh, sweet bread, and a milky corn stew. The altar was covered in orange flowers and surrounded by pine needles and white candles. These offerings are typical of many Chamulan ceremonies. Flowers are considered to be the food of God, and pine needles represent the people for whom the prayers are being said. White candles represent mother earth, god, and purity. Posh is often used in healing ceremonies to strengthen people and liberate their soul from evil spirits.
Afterwards we visited the home of a spiritual leader. Dried garlands of herbs and flowers covered the beams of the house and the air inside was thick with overpowering copal incense. The spiritual leaders stood behind a table draped in flowers, pine needles, and flickering white candles. As the musicians played an eerie repetitive chant, the leaders removed layers of colorful cloths from several crosses and statues. These cloths will be washed and used to cover the crosses and statues again once they were clean. Deafening explosions shook the house as men blew up fireworks outside. Small glasses of posh were passed to us to sample, which had a fiery taste like a rough tequila. Slightly muddled from the loud explosions and copal smoke, we made our way to the next town, which was blissfully more quiet.
San Lorenzo Zinacantan is a more prosperous village than Chamula, and their Dia de los Muertos celebrations are significantly more reserved. They are a distinct Tzotzil group from the Chamulans, and wear beautiful black cotton clothing embroidered with intricate turquoise, purple and blue floral designs. We visited their church, bells ringing, to observe their colorful altar with food and drink offerings for the dead. We also visited a family’s home to learn more about traditional Tzotzil healing practices. The women of the house sold scarves, table cloths, tortilla wrappers, and other handwoven clothes, all brightly colored with intricate designs. One of the younger women made tortillas in a simple cement room furnished only with a small table and a large fire at the center of the room.
The next day, we wandered over to the large cemetery in San Cristobal de la Casas. Dia de los Muertos celebrations continued there, and the graveyard was thronged with crowds of families. Vendors pushed carts selling sweets, soda, fruit, and chicharron, a delicious and highly unhealthy fried food that is covered in spicy chile and lime. Bands of musicians roamed the graveyard, stopping to sing and play traditional songs for groups surrounding their family’s graves. Some graves were simple mounds marked with wooden crosses; others were large mausoleums with glass doors, altars, and pictures, but most were surrounded by families and decorated with candles, orange marigolds, and pine needles. The atmosphere was festive and celebratory, and we discussed how different their views on death and loss (at least on this day) seem to be from the somber atmosphere you would expect in graveyards in the US (click here for a video of our Dia de Muertos experiences)