Day of the Dead 2007

copywrite 2007 Julia TaylorThis year Cuernavaca went all out for the Day of the Dead. An association of local museums started their first annual festival of ofrendas (offerings) and catrinas (well-dressed woman skeletons). The zocalo was packed with graves made of piled up sand and head stones depicting famous people, rung with marigold heads, and tops with burning candles that glowed after dark as well as offerings made by local families and students, but the best part was the catrinas.

The catrinas captivated all of us from the first moment we saw them. Made of paper machete and dressed to the hilt copywrite 2007 Julia Taylorin a manner that depicted a theme, they were expertly crafted with paint, natural materials, cloth, beads, mirrors, and stones.  We paused and photographed them every which way, jockeying among the crowd to get good angles. We stood next to them and took our photos by their side as if copywrite 2007 Julia Taylorwith Mickey Mouse at Disneyland — as did many other people there. I think half of Cuernavaca was inspired to pose next to at least one catrina and smile into the photographic lens of a cell phone. I never saw a sign explaining exactly who made them, but each was labeled with a theme-related title copywrite 2007 Julia Taylorand an artist’s name. The catrinas were about 7 feet tall and their body language showed their character because the artists carefully posed them. The artistic excellence with which they were crafted was inspiring.

One catrina had a crowd of people packed around it so tight that at first we couldn’t see what was so attractive about her. Once we pushed up close we saw that her face was glowing with opalescent tiles and her skirt was lit up from inside with shining butterflies and the Virgin of Guadalupe on a field of matt black. It was stunning and while my photos turned out good, they don’t quite capture the full effect.

copywrite 2007 Julia TaylorYou’ve really got to experience the Day of the Dead to know how wonderful it is.

copywrite 2007 Julia Taylor

copywrite 2007 Julia Taylor

copywrite 2007 Julia Taylor

copywrite 2007 Julia Taylor

copywrite 2007 Julia Taylor

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The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead:
A Sensory Delight

The Day of the Dead delights all of my senses. The usual rotten stench at the entrance to the market is driven out by the scent of thousands of bundles of marigolds and burning copal. Extra stands bursting with flowers, sweets, candles, and breads shoulder out an entire lane of the bus terminal.

Shopping for the Day of the Dead

It’s fun to wander through the stands asking the old ladies how much the candles cost—choosing the candles we want by their traditional, waxy smell. We count how many dead people we will honor and buy half as many foot-long candles as we need because we always cut them in half. We get a couple extra in case we have temporarily forgotten someone.

Photo: cover of Mexico: The Trick is Living HereWhat will the Day of the Dead be like for you when you retire in Mexico?
Click here to see a description of Mexico: The Trick is Living Here, which includes a special photo gallery showing real candy skulls, bread, altars, etc.

I love fingering the candy skulls with sequin eyes, feeling shy because I want to spend money on molded sugar lumps. We flip through the colored tissue paper, choosing designs with skulls and skeletons, deciding on the appropriate blend of colors, which must include lots of dark purple, the traditional color for the Day of the Dead.

I like the way it feels to load our arms with bundles of foot-and-a-half long marigolds of different sized blooms, lacy white accent flowers, and thick, heavy lion’s foot with stems almost as broad as my wrist and convoluted, velvety blooms as big as my fists. Carrying the flowers peeking out of their newspaper wraps, I try to keep the people in the crowd from breaking their stems. My husband limits the number of flower bundles we buy, but I always want more because I love to decorate the altar with them. There is no Day of the Dead without marigolds and velvet lion’s foot.

He chooses the breads that his grandmother always made for her Day of the Dead altars, then asks me what other pieces of bread I want to put out for my ancestors. I imagine them—fondly referred to at this time of year as “my little dead ones” (mis muertitos) enjoying the breads, candies and good smells. I choose breads with pink colored sugar on top that I know they will enjoy.

We get a small newspaper cone with a mixture of copal and other incense in it, so that our dead ones will be able to follow the smell and find their way home.

Heading home on the bus, we sit in the back and relax. I pet the velvety heads of the lion’s foot flowers. They are so solid, yet soft feeling. More like giant cat’s paws than flowers.

Preparing Our Home for the Day of the Dead

When we get home we put the flowers in buckets of water and clear out an area in the front room of our house. We find a big board and something to set it on. We iron our lacy table cloth and put out a few pieces of bread and a couple bouquets of flowers. It’s the night of the 31st, the special night reserved for children. My husband finds a toy and sets it out. He lights one candle, drips wax on the board, and sets the candle up in it. He calls out his little sister’s name.

We watch her little candle flicker as we eat our dinner and chat with our neighbors.

Building the Day of the Dead Altar

The next day, I take over. I spend over an hour on the first of November sitting on the floor in front of the altar, sorting flowers, making bouquets in liter-sized yogurt containers, then stacking the broken blooms up in front of the plastic containers so that they don’t show. I tape tissue paper flags around, artfully scatter petals, lay bread out in traditional pottery bowls, set fruit in temping piles, and place candy skulls. My husband and I walk to the store and buy pop for those ancestors who liked it. He pours a little alcohol into a shot glass. He bums a cigarette from a neighbor who smokes and lays that out for his grandfather. We include a glass of life-giving water. We don’t have any pictures of our ancestors, but we think of them the whole time we are creating their altar.

We don’t eat their treats, but munch on our own pieces of “dead people’s bread” (pan de muertos), washed down with glasses of cold milk.

My favorite step is when we take the ratty flowers, and de-petal them. We sprinkle the orange petals from the altar, right out the door, through the front yard and all of the way out the gate. Sometimes our neighbor comments that our dead people won’t have any trouble finding their way to their altar. The petals are our special Day of the Dead “Welcome Home” sign.

The Special Night Before the Day of the Dead

When the moment comes, we light our copal inside, let the smoke fill the front room, then put the bowl outside the door. The copal always burns out and I spend a lot of time trying to get the charcoal and copal into the right balance. My hair and clothes smell like smoke, which reminds me of happy nights camping with my family.

We each light the candles, setting them up in pools of their own wax. We call out each person’s name. Since there are no photos, our dead people have to use their auditory memories to know where to find us. I know my ancestors aren’t busy. Mine is the only altar for them and they have plenty of time to come in and enjoy the warm, bright glow and golds and purples of their altar.

We turn off the lights and take pictures of our creation. We sit and watch the candles flicker, enjoying the smell of the hot wax. The night is quiet and the crickets sing in the dark outside. We don’t have that many dead people, but the light is still bright enough to read by! We get sleepier and sleepier as the candles slowly burn down. The night is too magical and the whole altar too precarious to sleep. We have to keep an eye on the candles so they don’t catch the whole contraption on fire. As the candles burn down, they create so much warmth that they get wobbly on their feet. We debate blowing them out and going to bed, but just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We can almost feel our dead people there with us, enjoying the light in their honor.

Read about the catrinas of 2007.

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Live or Retire in Mexico: Spice up Your Holidays

Live or Retire in Mexico and Spice up Your Holidays 

One of the best reasons to live or retire in Mexico is to enjoy all of the wonderful Mexican holidays. The holidays here always have a community flare that will make you feel welcome and very glad that you decided to retire in Mexico. Best of all, they always include tons of delicious food.

Holidays provide a glimpse of Mexico’s traditions, both pre-Hispanic and post in ways that “regular” days don’t. In general, many holidays are set on dates found in the Catholic calendar, yet many of the foods and activities strike me as having a strong pre-Hispanic influence.

Your new friends and neighbors will want to share the traditional foods, (some of which are made only once a year for that holiday) with you. It’s a chance to connect with your new community and make friendships. Plan ahead for this by leaving time open for spontaneous activities. People will pop up with plates of food and invitations to come join them and their families at parties. You’ll want to say “yes.”

e-book
Need to know more about your lifestyle when you live or retire in Mexico?
Click here to see a description of an e-book prepared by the author of this website.

There is a cost to all the community celebration, so set some of your retirement savings aside to spend on holiday events. I’m always amazed at the amount of money Mexicans will spend on parties, even when they don’t have much. No cost is spared in treating their guests to excellent hospitality. As you become part of a network of friends and family who celebrate holidays together, you too, will want to be able to pitch-in for foods, drinks, and Styrofoam plates (it’s an Environmental night-mare, this Mexican party thing).

About the Holidays

“What’s Christmas going to be like when I live in Mexico?” may not be the most frequently asked question before people retire in Mexico, but it’s an important one emotionally. Click on the link and read all about what people, do and eat at Christmas.

How might I celebrate the Day of the Dead once I retire in Mexico?” One of my favorite holidays in Mexico is the Day of the Dead. Now that I live in Mexico, I’ve added it to my list of events I love to celebrate. After you retire here, you might be glad for the chance to add this to your list also.

Let the celebrations begin!

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