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Day of the Dead or Alive

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
In some countries, this time of year is referred to as Halloween and in others, such as Mexico, it's The Day of the Dead, even though, technically, it lasts four days. (In Oaxaca, the Day of the Dead begins eight days prior to November 2nd and is sometimes called The Week of the Dead.)

This is the time of year in which families remember and honor the dead, welcoming their souls home on their annual visit.

In Mexico, the smells of burning copal incense and pungent cempasúchil (marigolds) mingle with the aromas of fresh Dead Man's Bread (bread decorated with the shape of bones), colorful skeleton and skull calaveras, sweets, and candles. Special photographs (frequently life-size) of the departed are prominently exhibited, with loving remembrance.

Influences from Halloween can also be felt in Mexico during this period, such as little kids ringing doorbells seeking dulces, some dressed as Frankenstein, Dracula, or generic monsters with gruesomely painted faces and rubber hatchets imbedded in their skulls.

The origin of Halloween dates back 2000 years to the Celtic celebration of the dead on November 1, the first day of the Celtic New Year, honoring the Samhain, Lord of the Dead. Celtic ritual believed that the souls of the dead returned on the evening before November 1st, and their celebrations included burning sacrifices and wearing costumes. During the seventh century, Halloween spread throughout Europe, beginning with All Hallows Eve (the Night of the Dead), immediately followed by All Souls Day.

The first decorations were carved gourds and turnips, later replaced by the larger, easier-to-carve pumpkin. European custom also included placing candles inside the pumpkins carved with scary faces, to ward off the evil spirits who roamed the streets during All Hallows Eve.

The cultural combination of Europe's Halloween with Mexico's Day of the Dead has been made more apparent in recent years due to the relatively newfound zeal of los nińos.

A fond memory of this period in Ajijic is the October 31st when a girl about five appeared at my front door dressed in black, a short and horrible hag with green-hued long-nosed mask replete with hairy moles, her tiny hand extended for candy. I pretended to shrink back in horror at the sight of such an ugly crone and cried out in mock fear. "Oh," she cried, aghast at my reaction, swiftly ripping off the hag mask, "It's only me."

Another, more personal, cultural mixture falling somewhere between Day of the Dead and Halloween is the spectre of my late-though-lifelike mother.

I never listened to her when she was alive, so why do I listen to her now? She's been gone five years, and I hear her thoughts more loudly today than when she was able to actually vocalize them.

No photograph is necessary for me to see her face, nor any tape recording to hear her voice. They're both vividly, and apparently permanently, in my head. There is no Day of the Dead -- it's plural: Days of the Dead. Nights, too.

"You know better than that," frequently enters my mind in her voice, and sometimes, "You're going to wear THAT?" I'd tell her to mind her own business if I could, but I don't for two good reasons: I'm too chicken, and I'm too chicken.

It's true that I sometimes ask her for advice, but not aloud, or my friends would have me committed and I'd be residing in the tranquil confines of the local Rubber Ramada.

When troubled, I think of what Mom might have done in the same situation. Then I do the opposite. "Contrary," is what she calls, er, I mean, called, me.

For instance, one long-ago Halloween, I wanted to go trick or treating dressed as an authentic ballerina, complete with fluffy tutu and ballet slippers. Talented Mom sewed a beautiful outfit for me, but refused to allow me to apply the pounds of make-up all little girls long to wear, if only on the one night a year it should be permitted.

Years later, when my daughter asked to dress as a ballerina for Halloween, I bought the outfit, and applied tons of blush, eye shadow, and mascara, all her delighted little face could hold. Was that retro-revenge against Mom? All I can tell you is that, when I was applying the make-up to my daughter's face, I distinctly heard my Mom say, "Take off that stuff or you'll ruin her complexion!"

Since The Day of the Dead in Mexico is essentially a family feast, I do hope they don't object when Mom joins in each year, even if she is a foreigner. After all, if Mom had been with them at The Alamo, they'd still have Texas.
Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
Pubished October 21, 2003
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