Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thanksgiving, Memories, and El Día de los Muertos

For El Día de los Muertos, we're enjoying "Pan de Muerto".  Papa brought home a loaf in the shape of a person.  The kids can't wait to have a bite of the melt-in-your-mouth sweet cake.  We talk about the red sugar, a color which represents life and health since Aztec times.  In the wake of Halloween, El Día de los Muertos, Reformation and All Saints Day can easily get glossed over.  But we stop to talk about these fall holidays and to blend cultural traditions. 

For every month of the year, when we shop at our Mexican grocery store, there are special foods, in-season produce, and seasonal treats.  Day of the Dead food and decorations are especially delicious, colorful, and different from other U.S. holiday traditions.  While Halloween costumes in recent years have tended toward the grotesque, the terrifying, and the bloodier the better, el Día de los Muertos celebrates death as a part of life.  The joyful calacas, artistic representations of dancing skeletons are dry bones---not dripping with blood, not scary, but joyously clickety-clacking around town, and living it up.  El Día de los Muertos brings the dead back to life.  Everyone knows that it's wishful thinking, but for a night per year, there is joy in pretending and remembering and savoring the favorite foods and drinks of family members who aren't at the daily dinner table anymore.

When I lived in New York City, we belonged to a church that rented space in a seminary with more progressive theology than the renting congregation.  The seminary had a Day of the Dead altar on display with skulls, flowers, candles, and recuerdos of deceased loved ones.  On Sundays, the pastor's wife brought tablecloths to cover up what she saw as inappropriate ancestor worship.  Some norteamericanos are freaked out by a holiday that brings death so closely into the circle of life.  Protestants tend to keep their crosses empty, and are turned off by the detailed descriptions of bloody sacrifices.  How can we be a bridge between cultures, and how can El Día de los Muertos be made more accessible?

My students on Friday observed that we don't have a U.S. holiday to celebrate the dead.  Memorial Day comes closest.  But what is missing is the commemoration and enjoyment of the daily joys of living and breathing--the moment by moment experiences that make up quotidian pleasures.  In the sense of sharing time with favorite food and family, and remembering years gone by, maybe Thanksgiving comes a bit closer.

When my grandpa died, he and Grandma had chosen to plan for a memorial service rather than a funeral.  We got out his favorite Hershey's chocolate hat.  Having that small piece of his daily wardrobe brought back floods of memories, of how he pulled chocolate kisses from our ears, and made s'mores up at the cabin.  We made a book of his favorite recipes to display.  And we felt close to him and recalled many fond memories of his life--the daily blessings that he was quick to enjoy and share.

El Día de los Muertos isn't a satanic ritual.  It is a family gathering to cook the foods that bring back memories.  It's a celebration of the little joys that make life worth living.  It's a conscious effort to remember and stay close to the human blessings that God provides.  As we savor our bedtime snack tonight, we're giving thanks for our whole family history.   

No comments: