Originally created 10/27/01

Day of the Dead



Sugar skulls sound like a new Halloween fad.

But the treats and the glorious blaze of paper flowers in Mexican markets this time of year are for El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a time when Hispanic families honor their lost loved ones.

Instead of dark stories about restless ghosts and their haunts, black cats or glowing jack-o'-lanterns, the day is dedicated to praying, visiting cemeteries and showing the souls of the deceased they are not forgotten.

Both Halloween and the Day of the Dead are linked to the Catholic feast of All Saints, held on Nov. 1, which is Thursday this year.

All Saints Day honors saints known only to God.

All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween, became the "last chance" for goblins, ghosts and witches to cause mischief before they were "silenced" by the saints.

The Catholic Church has chosen Nov. 2 as All Souls Day, which is dedicated to the memory of souls in purgatory, where the just are freed from sin's taint before entering fully into eternal bliss. The faithful on Earth are exhorted to pray for them, especially during November.

The Day of the Dead is a tradition associated with All Souls Day and with native customs. In both Catholic and indigenous traditions, the feast celebrates the continuity of life.

While Halloween has its black and orange, the Day of the Dead uses white and yellow - "It is about life," said Sister Amalia Garcia, a Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who is serving the Hispanic community in Aiken County from a mission in Saluda, S.C.

As with Thanksgiving in the United States, Mexicans typically take off from work and come together as a family on the Day of the Dead. "It is a sacred holiday," she said.

People decorate homemade altars with flowers, candles, foods, religious goods and pictures of the deceased. In some communities, altars are exhibited.

Special altars for deceased children are readied on Nov. 1, followed by an all-night prayer vigil in the home.

Families place a large cross made of daffodil-yellow blooms, called Day of the Dead flowers, on their living room floors. They surround the cross with burning candles.

All through the night, they tend the tapers. If the candles burn down, new ones are started.

Sister Amalia remembers the vigils from her childhood. "It was all night, so the kids were falling asleep," she said with a laugh. "When they woke up we had dark smoke all over us" from the tallow in the candles.

About 10 a.m., families prepare to go to the cemetery. They take tools to clean the graves and food for a feast. Tamales are "everywhere," but families always take foods the deceased favored and begin by "offering" a taste at the graveside.

It is a symbolic gesture - the whole family is there for the feast, Sister Amalia said.

In the state of Hildalgo, Indian families spend the day in the cemetery and dance around the graves of their relatives, she said.

After the families return home, a special minister goes from house to house to lead prayers, which continue until the dawn hours of Nov. 3. In some areas, festivities continue until the end of the month.

The mood is always religious. "We are remembering the dead, and very respectfully," Sister Amalia said.

"Pity a kid who makes any mischief on that night because the spanking will not be spared," Sister Concepcion "Conchita" Antunez Solis said with a laugh. Another Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the Saluda mission, she also ministers to the Hispanic community.

Besides sweets, breads are made in the shape of skulls and skeletons. A sweet drink, called atole, mixed from corn, sugar and milk or water, is another tradition. Sister Concepcion's favorite version has plums.

Ground corn is boiled with molasses, then vanilla and cinnamon are added with the plums. "Delicious!" she said. "I can already taste it."

For more information on the Day of the Dead, visit the Web site www.mexconnect.com.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.