On an altar in the main square of San Miguel de Allende, November 2, 2014
Day of the Dead: Symbolism and Colors
by Victoria Challancin
In Mexico, my adopted home, we dance with death on a near-daily basis, but never as we do on el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when real communication with the dead is believed possible.
Together, dear Readers, we have talked about The Poetry of Death, sampled the alfeñiques or sugar skulls/figures, strolled through the Day of the Dead Markets, we have built altars, visited altars, and seen even more altars, enjoyed the food...together we have done all this, and yet I know, that if you are a non-Mexican reader, you no doubt find it all strange, if not disturbingly macabre.
In a past post, I summed it up as I best know how: ...with all the death imagery, that constant reminder of our mortality, humor permeates all. In Mexico, it is not that loss isn't felt, that grief isn't present, or even that sadness isn't paramount...it is more that a sensible perspective exists, allowing us to feel the sorrow, remember those who have most touched our lives, and always know that death is an inevitable part of life. Death. The one inevitable experience that no once can escape. No one.
Reams have been written about Mexico's celebration of the Day of the Dead and its obsession with Death. Reams. Volumes. Often I read that it is an example of how Mexicans laugh at death. I don't believe that Mexicans laugh at death at all, rather they "celebrate" death as a means of staying connected and honoring those that they love, those who have passed on--albeit in a joyful and colorful way. No dreary mourning here. Instead, we have a vivid connection to the Cycle of Life.
The indigenous peoples of Mexico, such as the Nahua, Purepecha, Totonac, and Otomí believed that the souls of the dead return yearly to visit with their relatives. And they come laughing, drinking, dancing, singing and generally being merry, just as when they were alive. There is surely a message for us all here--seize the moment and live!
“The Mexican... is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” Octavio Paz, Mexican Poet and Writer
(Note: November 1st is known as All Saints Day and the 2nd is All Souls Day--the days when the dead return to us each year).
Instead of wearing masks and costumes meant to scare away the evil spirits, Mexicans offer beauty in the form of floral arrangements, favorite sweets and food, and photos to both remember and welcome the loved ones who have passed on.
The Symbolism and Meaning of the Colors
The most common colors seen on the altars for Day of the Dead are purple, yellow, orange, white, red, and pink. Each one carries its own meaning.
Purple: suffering, pain, loss, and grief
Yellow/Orange: the brilliance of the sun and a new day
White: purity, promise, and hope
Red: the blood of life which sustains not only the body but the soul and a symbol of sacrifice
Pink: celebration and joy
They dance, they prance, they cavort, they sing, they eat, and laugh. They represent those who are no longer with us in the flesh, but are with us in spirit. They remind us that they are still here, still a part of us, and they remind us literally of what is inside every one of us--our skeleton, representing our inner selves, our souls. They also remind us of the good things in life: good wine, family, eating, singing, dancing, and playing. And they do it so well.
A friend and her partner dressed as a Catrina and a Catrín
Calaveras, or Skulls
In addition to the entire skeleton, the heads, or skulls alone are a beloved emblem for the Day of the Dead. Often depicted in humorous settings, they can be caricatures of famous people such as actors or politicians, musicians, dancers, policemen, and revolutionaries. The most iconic of these symbols come from the works of artist José Guadalupe Posada whose 19th century engravings form the basis of the beloved Catrina figure (see above). Note as well that the pre-Columbian Mexicans viewed the skull as a symbol of life, rather than death.
Cempazuchitl, the Náhuatl or Aztec word for marigold, act as symbols for death in ancient Mesoamerican mythology. Often they are seen broken open, so that their petals can be used to lead the dead home where they are honored and prayed for by their loved ones. They are also woven into arches and left whole in vases or growing in pots--the "flower of the dead." These flowers are also called zempasuchil. cempasuchil, or zempasuchitl.
Las Ofrendas, or Offerings
Favorite foods of the beloved are always offered on the altars. You will see sugar cane, oranges, apples, pan de muerto, peanuts, seeds, beans, tequila, beer, tamales, refried beans, charro beans, nixtamal, tacos, enchiladas, and more. Photos always are lovingly placed alongside the food offerings. Toys, pipes, hats, and other personal belongings also find their way to the altars.
Papel Chino or Papel Picado
The beautifully and often intricately cut tissue paper designs can been seen decorating not only altars, but also homes, streets, neighborhoods, and shops. They often show skeletons cavorting in their very human ways, displaying the same antics as the living. This delicate tissue also represents the wind and the fragility of life.
Pan de Muerto
One of the staple foods on any altar is pan de muerto, or "bread of the dead," which symbolizes the souls of the departed. This slightly sweet egg bread can be found in a variety of shapes from simple round with crosses or bones atop them to elaborate skulls and skeletons.
Candles and Incense
The candles, or fire, are meant to guide the spirits to their final resting place as well as help them return to visit the living. Incense also helps to carry the soul along, with soft scents, on its journey.
Alfeñiques, or Sugar Figures
Although I have written extensively about alfeniques before, and shown lovingly made examples from the local Day of the Dead Market, no post about Day of the Dead can miss mentioning these whimsical sugar figures, made with powdered sugar, egg whites, and a vegetable adhesive made of lemon. Check out the link above for many examples of the types of sugar figures Mexicans put on their home altars.
Day of the Dead
San Miguel de Allende, México
A Degas-esque ballerina offering, made by a precious Mexican friend and her father
Please ask permission before using text or photos. Thank you!
Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México