Skeletons at the Feast

Article excerpt

Skeletons at the feast

A unique blend of pre-Columbian and Hispanic myths, Mexico's Feast of the Dead brings together past and present, devotion and mockery, the commercial and the spiritual.

In October in the Mexican countryside, the crows flock in their thousands to peck at the fresh corncobs. The agricultural year has ended and it is time for the people to gather in the fruits of their labour and celebrate the fertility of the earth. It is also time to prepare for the Feast of the Dead.

This is the most important and popular of all Mexican fiestas. On 1 and 2 November (All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day), signs of the coming festivities appear in the city streets. Imitation skeletons are stationed in shop-windows, advertising a variety of products. Bakers sell the traditional "bread of the dead", decorated with shinbones made of flour and eggs. Market stalls are set up to sell toys, sweets and all sorts of delicacies whose shapes evoke death.

Newspapers publish supplements containing calaveras (death's-heads), illustrated verses in which well-known public figures are shown dead or in the great beyond. Continuing a tradition which dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, these verses with their musical cadences usually lampoon politicians or comment on current events and problems.

Children take part in the festivities. They run through the streets asking adults for money "for my death's-head" and show people objects they have made. Some of them carry elaborately decorated cardboard coffins from which dancing skeletons jump out, while others pierce holes in gourds to make eyes, nose and a big toothy mouth, and then light a candle inside them. Some even invent stories about creatures beyond the grave, or disguise themselves in cadaverous masks and go out into the streets to frighten the wits out of unsuspecting people. In the elegant districts of large cities it is common to find children and young people celebrating Hallowe'en in American style--a variation of the Celtic feast which originated in Ireland. These carousers are the most dangerous, for if they do not get what they want, they bombard homes and shops with bags of flour.

A bewildering range of toys are evocative of death. They include calacas, wire and clay skeletons which jump and dance; skulls that grin when their jawbones are manipulated; jolly horsemen mounted on the skeletons of horses, and automats which at the turn of a handle bring to life the skeletons of acrobats, boxers, or tilicas--trembling, spineless joke skeletons. Many young men buy one of these puppets for their sweethearts. Others prefer to give sweets which confectioners make specially for the occasion--usually sugar or chocolate skulls with the beloved's name written across the forehead.

The fiesta also gives rise to a variety of cultural activities. In the big cities people go to exhibitions on death in the pre-Columbian world or to the theatre to enjoy the Calaveras de Posadas or the traditional play Don Juan Tenorio by the Spanish Romantic author Jose Zorrilla. On the night of 2 November wooden or cardboard puppet-skeletons bearing topical captions are displayed as part of a calavera competition held at Mixquic, a township near Mexico City.

As well as festivities in the city streets and competitions organized in the villages, there are popular dances and fairs at which people eat their fill, enjoy themselves, get drunk and defy death because "life is worthless". The festivities can take a violent and sometimes tragic turn when old quarrels flare up amid the shouting and the fumes of alcohol, and one or two of the living brutally join the dead.

The combination of festivity and commerce in the streets is the backdrop to more intimate celebrations of the cult of the dead. During the two days of the fiesta, people prepare to welcome their dead, to honour their memory and perform again the rites and ceremonies they learned in their families. …