Earth is represented by flowers and crops. Souls are enticed to the altar and fed by aroma; the mouth watering smell of their favorite foods.
Wind is symbolized by a moving object. Colorful tissue paper and hanging cut out decorations are commonly used to to sway or toss about in a breeze or draft.
Water in a decorative bowl. Quenching a soul’s thirst after a long journey home. Even a hand towel is provided.
Fire glows with candles.
In something like trick or treating, children collect candies on this holiday. But often these are muertos, little candy skulls.
La Calaca is not meant to be scary, but fun. The typical female ceremonial skeleton is lavishly dressed, adorned with jewelery, and a floppy wide brim hat. The man often has a bottle of booze in hand. In short, they’re ready to party.
The altar tradition is deeply rooted in Michoacan. I visited the small village of Santa Fe De La Laguna on the road from Morelia to Uruapan. The residents are an indigenous people, The Purepecha Indians. They mainly speak Purepechan rather than Spanish. Many still wear traditional garments. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s they found this group battling the Aztecs. Needless to say neither group was any match for the Conquistadors.
People of this village retain old values of openness and hospitality. I walked by an open door. I saw inside just a bit. There I noticed a beautifully flowered altar. A seated group of Tarascan ladies warmly extended an invitation to enter. Their simple yet welcoming home had three main rooms. The largest was devoted to the altar. Men sat in a smaller room. The other was occupied by the women. This village has a unique variation of Dias de Los Muertos. The women attend exclusively to the all the aspects of planning and setting up for the holiday. The altar, the food, the cleaning and decorating of the grave site, etc. The men are involved only with harvest rituals.
I was invited to a delicious bowl of red tomato fish soup and a tamale wrapped in banana leaves. The women were very pleased I accepted their offering. They smiled at my obvious enjoyment of the meal. I was offered another serving.
Other regions celebrate this day with parades. A Lidless coffin lifted up to catch flowers, fruits and candles. A crackle of firecrackers. At night the tall altar candles burn continuously in remembrance.
A lot of Americans who visit Mexico this time of year may well leave impressed with the color, beauty and charm of this occasion. These are intriguing customs that have spiritual value. Not just a party excuse or candy grab. It is to honor and remember deceased loved ones as well as to eat, drink and be merry.
Santa Fe de La Laguna, has resisted change for centuries. Hopefully they will continue to hang on to what is uniquely theirs. Even in the midst of N.A.F.T.A., globalization and the new world order.