Parties, Bones and Candles

A year or so ago, my wife and I spent four days visiting relatives—alive and dead—in Mexico. The occasion was the gathering of my wife's family to remember and honor deceased relatives. During those four days, I watched, but did not participate, as my in-laws participated in four religious rituals.

November 1st was El Dia de los Angelitos (The Day of the Little Angels), known to traditional Catholics as All Souls Day. On this day, which marks the beginning of the two-day religious holiday El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), millions of Mexicanos remember children who have died. In my experience, family gatherings on this day tend to be quiet, as family members recall children they have lost. The real action happens the following day.

For traditional Catholics, November 2 is All Saints Day. Throughout Mexico, however, it is the Day of the Dead. Festivities mark this day as families throughout the nation honor their dead. During the nearly five decades that I have been spending long weekends and vacations in Mexico, I have observed and participated in provincial celebrations of just about every Mexican holiday a number of times. There are, in my opinion, four really big holidays celebrated in Mexico: September 16 (honoring the beginning of the revolt against Spain); May 5 (honoring General Zaragoza's defeat of the French Foreign Legion at Puebla); December 12 (honoring the alleged apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531). The fourth is El Dia de los Muertos, which begins on the evening of October 31, is the only three-day celebration.

My wife's family, who live in northern states in Mexico, tend to be conservative. Generally, they celebrate the Day of the Dead by attending requiem Masses, visiting the graves of loved ones and quietly remembering those who have gone before. This is not the case with other Mexican families; some of which make a really big deal of the occasion.

Across Mexico many homes feature special altars during this season. Pictures of deceased loved ones adorn these altars. The altars hold foods and drinks favored by the dead relatives. Candles are provided, so that the spirits of the dead might light their way home following the celebration. I suppose the trip up from the grave and back must be a messy business, for many altars offer soap and water so that the dead might clean up after their journey. Memorabilia, together with symbolic things that they would understand, decorate the altar. Some leave notes for their dead. The idea is to let those who have gone before know that they may be dead but they still are part of the family.

Cemetery visits are de rigueur. These visits tend to be major events in many cities, towns and villages around the nations. In my wife's hometown, celebrants gather at the plaza de armas (main plaza) to parade to the cemetery. Statues and other idols are brought out from the Catholic churches to be carried along in solemn procession. There are bands, usually drum and bugle corps from secondary schools, equestrian groups, floats and Matachine dancers

Once at the cemetery, families clean and decorate the graves of loved ones. Some folks, particularly those from the southern states, bring food and drink for a party at family graves. The guests of honor at these affairs are the deceased. The Day of the Dead is not a time of sorrow and mourning. Quite the contrary; it is a joyful time when loved ones—living and dead—gather to party. After the picnic, some folks leave food and drink so that the departed might continue the festivities.

The Mexican observance of El Dia de los Muertos is nothing like our Halloween. Granted, images of skeletons, skulls and the trappings of the dead are part of both holidays, but there are no witches, monsters, vampires and the like among the images of El Dia de los Muertos. In our European culture, images associated with Halloween are frightening. For Mexicans the skeletons, death masks and such are not intended to be scary. Often, skeletons and other death images are presented in comical poses or situations. Unlike the images of Halloween, the images of El Dia de los Muertos are to be viewed in a positive light. There are other differences, of course, but they all boil down to a different concept of death.

On the first day of every month, observant Mexican Catholics begin the day by lighting a ceremonial candle in honor of La Divina Providencia (Divine Providence). I asked one of my sisters-in-law to explain the significance of lighting a candle and allowing it to burn down on the first day of the month (and 12 candles on December 1st). She told me that she had no idea why Mexican Catholics burn these candles. All she could tell me was that doing so is a Mexican custom.

Stioll looking for an answer, I turned to the Catechism, where I found this 'explanation:'

302 Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created "in a state of journeying" (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call "divine providence" the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection:

By his providence God protects and governs all things which he has made, "reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well". For "all are open and laid bare to his eyes", even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

I never did learn the significance and value of burning a candle to a nub on the first day of every month. Like so many Catholic rituals, the meaning of the monthly candle sacrifice appears to have been lost in antiquity and buried in Catholic tradition.

Another religious ritual that I frequently observed was the diurnal droning of the Rosary. Every day, my sister-in-law and niece sat at the kitchen table to chant five 'mysteries' of the Rosary series.

For those who would like to read up on praying the Rosary, I urge you to read this article by another former Catholic, Rebecca Sexton.

And that was the environment in which I passed my my four-day weekend in Mexico. Fortunately, I had my laptop and several movies to keep me occupied while the family prayed, socialized with the dead and partied.

It is my considered opinion that, rather than submerge themselves in meaningless piety and ritual, those who look to Mama Church for the way to salvation would be better advised to heed the counsel of Augustine of Hippo: “Love God and do as you please.” This is sound advice. Those who truly love God desire to please Him.

November 2008

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