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THE DAYS OF THE DEAD - MEXICO

At first sight, it may appear an exercise in futility to include dead people on the invitation list to a party. Not only is it unlikely that they will attend, but it is also impossible to predict their condition should they do so. One tends to remember the dead in their prime, rather than when imprisoned by age or disease, or as they appeared after a fatal accident, and there is no guarantee that they might not return in a less than pristine state. Whilst such uncertainties would stay the writing hands of most hosts and hostesses, in some cultures a neat solution has been discovered to this problem of etiquette, that enables the dead to be included in the festivities of the living.

Imagine if, like Faust, it were possible to summon Helen of Troy back to life. Imagine inviting a dead relative, whose company was once treasured, to return to the Earth for a feast in their honour. These are the possibilities that inspire a festival celebrated throughout Mexico – Los Dias de Muertos – the Days of the Dead, which, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the entertainment of those who have passed away. Whilst such an event might be expected to be sombre, like those usually associated with the dead such as funerals, it is instead a blaze of colour, and rather than assuming that the returning departed have lost both their sense of fun and their sense of taste, the Days of the Dead are filled with sensual treats, with fine food, sweet incense, stirring sounds, spirited dancing and serious drinking.

The festival is held over the days that surround the Catholic feasts of All Souls (November 1 st ) and All Saints (November 2 nd ) and usually commences on October 28 th. Like Halloween in the United States, with which it overlaps, it is celebrated to some degree by most of the population of Mexico, and similarly, rather than being a single public event, it consists of a multitude of private celebrations. Although its rituals vary across the country, they usually take the form of a three day ceremony, during which the dead are welcomed back to their family homes where they are offered food, flowers, incense, alcohol and other gifts, and are assumed to enjoy circulating amongst their descendants. Los Dias del Muertos is also a time for gift giving between the living – people present their children with little sugar skulls with their names inscribed on them, and purchase skeletons and other memento mori for their friends. These private celebrations are augmented by public festivities. There are parades and pyrotechnic displays in villages and towns throughout the nation. Plays are enacted with death as their subject, and competitions are held for the most attractive offerings. Skeletons appear in the newspapers, in shop windows, and on television, indeed death becomes a theme for all of Mexico. The country is proud of los Dias del Muertos. The festival is perceived of as being uniquely Mexican, a fusion of pre-Columbian beliefs and Catholicism. Its celebration is encouraged by the government, explained in schools, and occasionally is subsidised. The newspapers trumpet its virtues: “Los festejos tienen como finalidad fortalecer las traditions y costumbres de nuestra Mexicanidad” (“the ultimate purpose of the celebrations is to re-inforce the traditions and customs of our Mexican-ness”).