One bonus of my recent trip to Puebla, Mexico, is that it happened to coincide with the Festival del Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead Festival. A mixture of Catholic and native traditions, the Dia de los Muertos is a festive occasion when the living welcome the souls of the dead back to Earth for a visit. It takes place over several days, from October 31 (when the souls of accident victims are supposed to return) to Nov 2 (when the souls of adults come to visit their old homes).
All over the city of Puebla, the shops displayed sweets made of white sugar or amaranth seed, molded into the shapes of skulls and decorated with shiny foil and brightly colored icing. Merchants in the Parian, the local craft market, sold whimsical clay and paper-mache dioramas of skeletons doing daily tasks -- walking skeledogs, typing at the computer, and teaching classes of child skeletons.
The graves in the graveyards were nearly hidden by banks of deep orange marigolds (the flower of the dead) and fuchsia coxcomb and were outlined with votive candles. Many shops, restaurants, and public areas had altars standing in them -- altars to the dead, festooned with lacy tissue paper cutouts of skulls and bones, decorated with more marigolds and candles, and piled high with pan de muerto (the bread of the dead, an egg-based sweet bread, like panettone without the fruit), sugar skulls, fruits, religious art, and the deceased person's favorite foods and beverages. Sometimes the altars commemorated a concept -- we found a political altar for the death of justice -- or a celebrity, as my friend found a touching altar dedicated to Christopher Reeve.
On November 2, our translators, Audrey and Mariana, and the other members of our cooking class, the Peels, set off with a local guide to the rural town of Huacachoula, famous throughout Puebla state for its elaborate altars. The tradition in Huacachoula is to display an altar to the public for the first year after a loved one has passed away, and subsequent commemorations are for family only.
The altars were stunning. Rising to the top of the 20-foot-high ceilings of local houses, they were swathed in white satin and decorated with statues and lithographs of angels and lacy white paper cuts. Though the altars could have as many as five levels (in ascending size, giving the overall impression of a wedding cake), each altar is really divided into three symbolic levels. The first level contains the departed person's favorite foods and drinks; the second an image of the departed person himself (often reflected by a mirror, as that helps the soul to return to earth); and the third is full of angels, crucifixes, and other religious art. Paths of marigold petals lead towards the altars, helping the souls of the dead to find their way home.
Though it may seem a bit strange to Americans and Europeans (it did to me, at any rate), the Day of the Dead is a happy occasion, when families go to the graves of their loved ones, decorate them with flowers and candles, and feast on the departed person's favorite dishes. The center of Huacachoula was turned into a carnival, with rides and vendors selling trinkets and sweets. The Day of the Dead is also a time for hospitality -- you are supposed to bring a small gift, like a candle or a few coins, to each altar that you visit. At the last altar that we saw, the family invited the whole group of us in for pork ribs cooked in mole sauce.