On Friday evening (October 29th) about 200 altars will be set up along the roadside, from La Ermita (the Pilgrim’s Church) to El Panteón Florida (The Cemetery). Everyone is invited to stroll and visit between 6:30 and 9:00 pm. The streets will be closed to traffic.
Villages, schools, government agencies will all take part in U Xiimbahil Pixanoób – El Paseo de las Animas (The Departed Souls’ Way).
This is a chance to partake in one of the most beautiful traditions of Yucatan. Those new to the area may wonder what it is all about…
In all corners of Mexico, Los Finados – the Last Days, (also known as Días de Muertos or Todos Santos ) is a cherished tradition. Celebrated in Yucatan from October 31 – November 2; this three day period is dedicated to the memory of the faithful departed. (Los Angelitos – dead children are remembered October 31, los Santos – the saints on November 1st, and las Animas – all Souls on November 2nd)
Where I come from in Canada, death is rather a solemn topic but solemnity was not what I witnessed during my first year living in Merida (1976). Of the many new customs I learned about, one of the most unusual was Los Finados. Jorge was on a trip and my mother in law insisted I come to spend the day with the family…
I helped her to drag an old table into the living room which she quickly covered with one of her best, bright white table cloths. On top of this, she placed vases of flowers, candles, framed photographs, a big crucifix and I didn’t have too much trouble figuring out that this was an altar of some kind. Then we went into the kitchen where all manner of food prep was in progress.
I was given a huge pile of bean pods and asked to shell them – I was told that my job was “muy importante” – very important. I shelled and shelled for more than an hour, after which I had a couple of cups of small black beans. “¡Excelente!” Doña Bertha said.
The beans (espelón) were worked into a huge pile of corn dough… spices and lard got mixed in too and the huge blob was pressed into flat tin sheets, lined with banana leaves. Pieces of chicken, tomatoes, onion, long yellow peppers and herbs were laid down. A corn gravy was ladled on and then all was covered with another layer of dough and banana leaves. Into the oven the great pies went…
Atole (corn gruel) Calabaza Melada (candied squash) a chocolate drink and other accompaniments were also lovingly prepared. I had no idea what was going on but after several months, I’d learned it was better not to ask. The torrent of Spanish explanation was pretty much lost on me – better to wait until Jorge was around and could explain in English.
After a couple of hours, the crispy “pie” was ready and a big chunk was cut off and placed on the altar with the other food items that had been concocted that morning. To my surprise, a bottle of rum, cigarettes, a pack of cards and a domino set was also laid down. “Para mi papa,” I was told. “For my father”… What was she talking about?
And then it dawned on me what was happening. Today was All Saints Day! I could hold back the questions no longer. As slowly and carefully as possible, Doña Bertha explained that the altar was for the spirits who would visit over the next two days… She was ready to receive them with the food, drink and entertainment they had loved during their lifetimes. Did she really believe the faithful departed would cross over? Yes she did and so did everyone else in the household. I was careful not to let my suspicions show.
We went to the cemetery to place flowers and say prayers at the gravesites. Doña Bertha actually introduced me to the occupants of the tombs – “Look Mama, this is Joanna, Jorge’s girlfriend from Canada.” I was getting pretty freaked out.
Back from the graveyard, I found Jorge waiting for us… “Are we going to eat the pib now,” he asked his mother. Ah that’s what the pie is called, I thought… We all said a few more prayers at the altar then left the spirits to dine in peace in the living room while we ate in the kitchen. The pib was delicious. As we ate, the family talked about “las animas.” They seemed to believe the spirits were actually amongst them. I chose to believe it too and why not?
Doña Bertha told me once, “Sometimes when I least expect it, a little breath of air blows down my arm and the face of someone who has passed jumps into my mind. I know the puff of air was their greeting.” This seems to comfort her and she doesn’t pine for her loved ones who are gone. To her, especially during the days of the dead, they are present and accompanying her como siempre – as always.
Images: I do not have any digital photos of our family’s celebrations. What I’ve included are a sample of typical shots taken during the Days of the Dead in different parts of the country. The black & white image (Yucatan) and the night time cemetary shot (Michoacan) are from the Internet. The others are from my albums, taken by my son Carlos…