Day of The Dead Celebrations in Michoacan (Part 5)

The Rite

By Lic. Benjamin Lucas Juarez.

There are as many different ways to celebrate the feast as there are communities in the Purépecha territory. Although the most widespread ways to celebrate come from the communities that sit on the shores and islands of Lake Pátzcuaro, the highland, stream and marsh communities of Zacapu also have their own way to celebrate.

In some communities, the celebration is more muted and intimate, with just a small altar at home. In others, the decorations are big and bring large families, relatives and friends together.

According to tradition, when someone dies within a Purépecha community, the starting time for “the wait” begins almost immediately after the rites to bid farewell to the body and the soul of the dead one are over.

It is accustomed to have a big celebration for those who died in the previous year (from November to November), who are those who return for the first time, but there are also communities where they celebrate for three consecutive years.

In the house where someone will be “awaited”, everything is prepare in advance, especially the food, as this will have to be enough to offer to all those who come and present an offering. Among other recipes, it’s common to have pozole and meat tamales as main dishes.

The location where the altar will be put and its elements are decided. Tradition states the tasks that go to each of the persons involved in the rite depending on their relationship with the soul or the awaiting family, so there is no confusion and everyone knows what they have to do.

Starting on the eve of October 31st, the little angels start coming back, that is, the souls of children passed, although people who died without getting married are also considered angels.

At midnight on November 1st, the little angels stop coming and then it’s time for the souls of the elders to come. They are awaited until midnight of November 2nd.

For both cases, the central ritual of the offering consists of people, those who made the food and set the altar and visiting relatives and friends, waiting for the soul together.

Those who pay visits do so in small groups, either families or friends, and carry offerings in baskets or trays mostly with fruit, bread and candles. When they arrive at the house and after they say hello, they put the container with the offering on the altar, light a candle and sit on wooden chairs that have been placed around the altar where they can remain in silence for a moment or say a short prayer.

The people who live in the house offer guests a drink or a cigarette first and then they offer them the food they prepared to share and taste it beside the altar. The atmosphere gets more relaxed and the feeling of a celebration is felt, but in a solemn way.

Once they finish eating, the fruit and the other contents of the offering brought by the visitors are placed in the altar and the containers are returned to their owners. In some communities, the containers are filled with food to be shared with their other family members.

Next, the group says goodbye and the visit ends. This little ritual is repeated again and again for most of the night and day, so almost always there are people gathered with the soul by the altar.

An alternative is what it’s known as the vigil at the cemetery. For some communities, it is more relevant to wait in the cemetery. So, graves are carefully decorated, crosses are made out of flowers, a flowered arch decorated with fruit and bread is placed over the grave, candles are lit and the offering is placed over the grave. With everything set, the family and relatives sit around to “keep vigil over the dead”, which is a way of defining the wait and the gathering with the soul. They eat there as well, they drink hot beverages and more than one falls asleep, but everything is done gathered with the soul.

Who has the opportunity to visit a cemetery during this celebration finds that every notion of loneliness or fear disappears after seeing a cemetery filled with flowers, life, light and celebration. Also, as mentioned before, all communities are different and so, not all the communities that have cemetery vigils do it all night long; some begin the vigil at midnight, others arrive very early in the morning and others just go to the cemetery during the day.

Something important, although less and less used, is the ringing of the bells on these days. Bells can be heard day and night of the celebration in certain communities that a lot of people consider to be the voices of the towns that call their souls home so they don’t get lost and are able to recognize their houses.

It will also be possible to hear the explosion of fire works that each group of people paying a visit sets off to announce their arrival, representing also the joy of the celebration.

Image credits: Babs Blog

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