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The Day of the Dead Offering

by Oscar Guzman

I am so accustomed to being alive
I didn’t realize I had turned into a vulture
”.

Jorge Reyes
(Mexican Composer)

*Spanish

The sound of the rain, the smell of wet earth, the heat of fire, the color of the sky glowing in the afternoon and the taste of hot coffee: all sensory experiences that we keep with us and that accompany us as we go through our life on earth.

But it isn’t always like that.  Some day, sooner or later, we cross the threshold that divides life and death, and then our perception of the world, as we know it changes.  And red after red is perhaps a more surprising color any other shade that has ever been seen or imagined;   the sharpest sounds that have ever been heard and we discover the hidden beauty of the odors that are hidden from our earthly noses…Or perhaps, we won’t even need our senses —  sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch — for the new sensory experiences that our soul never used while life flowed by day to day.

What experiences manifest themselves in that moment? What new textures do we learn? What new senses do we discover? Until now, no one has been able to answer these questions that are as unsettling as they are old.

But there is a moment where simple belief is confused with faith, a magical moment in which whatever’s out there and our world reconcile, and crying and pain suffered in the wake of irremediable loss of a loved one is transformed.  And body and spirit are reunited, the world of the alive and the kingdom of the dead, color, magic, tradition, mysticism untie to form one of the most celebrated parties in Mexico:  the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead offering is a living hope to spend just one more day with our loved ones from far away, from a remote place that allows them to return to earth, to the land of tastes, smells, colors, sounds and textures…where they must relearn about senses and experiences that are no longer useful to them.  They come back to share our elements, those which surely they also had at one time, and it is our only way to ensure communion in the festivity.

It is because of that the flower cempaxochitl is yellow, so that it can be seen from far away. And therefore the trail of flowers is the first guide that shows the guest to the home, where the altar is awaiting his arrival.  And it is also necessary to be able to recognize the aroma of the house, so the guest feels at home, so that he can identify and enjoy his stay in the place that holds so many memories.  It is because of this that incense is used.  It should be lit in the house to blend both aromas, so that later, when the guest comes, he won’t get lost on the way.  It is also said that smell is the only one of the five senses that is used after death.  It is developed in order to make the return home a little easier.

But it isn’t only the memory of the senses and eternal life that allows the communion.  It is also necessary to remind them of the world as they knew it, the world that they left behind, so full of material things, so sensory. 

The presence of the four elements is required: water, earth, wind and fire.  No offering can be complete if one of those elements is missing, and their symbolic representation is a fundamental part of the offering.

Water, the fountain of life, is put in a glass so that those who come thirsty can relieve their thirst after a long journey.  Bread, made with products of the earth, is there to satisfy their hunger. Wind, which moves the colored papel picado that decorates and brings happiness to the table. Fire, which purifies everything and for this occasion comes in the form of a candle that is lit in their name so that we can invoke our dearly departed.

Later, comes the banquet, with all its specially prepared delicacies, the most splendorous part of all the party.  Depending on the resources and the geographical zone, there are tamales andbuñuelos, coffee and atole, beans and corundas, mole and enchiladas — all the food that the visiting loved one once enjoyed.  It is a must to serve the food while it’s hot so that it puts off a stronger aroma.

Other key items are the picture of grandma, uncle’s hat, the rattle that the baby never played with.  Sugar calaveras with the deceased’s name on the forehead, and little pumpkins are all typical of this time of year.  Images of saints are also present to guide and accompany our beloved back to their new home.

For the children there are candies and fruits; for the adults, cigarettes and tequila.  For everyone there is the hope of having our loved ones at our table once again, sharing for a brief moment of our time as we know it…

  Oscar Guzmán

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