I have written about this passingly before but now we have just been to Mexico to experience this for ourselves. This festival occurs around November 1st and 2nd, close to All Souls in the Christian calendar, Halloween and Samhain in the Celtic year. It a more important festival than Christmas for the Mexicans and is all about inviting those who have died to come back and join them for one night.
This is the time of year when for many traditions the belief is that the boundary between the living and the dead getting more permeable. For many cultures the Ancestors are an important part of daily life. They are consulted when major decisions have to be made, they are remembered and included in ceremonies and food is put out for them at mealtimes. In Mexico this happens at this one time of year. Everyone and I mean everyone goes to their graveyard, young toddlers, bolshy teenagers, mothers and sons, daughters and husbands, elderly widows helped along by younger family members. They bring brushes and buckets and clean up the graves, they repaint the lettering on the gravestones and they decorate the grave. The avenues into the cemetery are filled with people carrying picnics and stools, and chatting, laughing and sitting quietly. Musicians rove around playing hurdy gurdies and in Mariachi bands, and outside there is the hustle and bustle of a fairground with food and rides, stalls and games. It is joyous. The dead are coming back for a visit and it better seem fun and beautiful!
On every grave, candles and lanterns are lit, and food is put out to tempt back the visitors. Their favourite beer, some fruit and pan de muerto - a special sweet bread for the dead. And on every grave are flowers. People arrive bearing huge buckets full of marigolds, not small delicate bunches, generous, overflowing armfuls. Creativity flourishes. On one grave there will be huge vases of orange marigolds and a deep maroon flower, gladioli and lilies. On another all the marigold blooms will have been removed from the stem and a glorious orange carpet covers the grave with patterns made by other flowers. Another will sport a skull with candles creating the eyes and mouth and everywhere will be pathways of petals to lead the dead back to the right place. People set up shelters and stay all night, remembering, talking, drinking, dancing. It is full of life. It brings the family together and the person is honoured. Stories are retold, tears and laughter shared, sometimes prayers are spoken. And within twenty-four hours it has all been cleared away. The flower sellers have disappeared, all the petals are swept up, the lanterns are removed and the fair moves on for another year. And back at home on the offrende, the private altar made in each house to remember the dead, the sugar skulls are eaten and the photographs put back on the wall or in the drawer and the last of the copal incense is burned. Each small village has its own particular traditions. In one we visited they used elaborately made exquisite candles and burnt a different herb. How comfortable it all feels. The relationship continues with those who have died in this ancient and familiar way. I think there is so much we can learn here.