Spotlight On: A Series on Culture & the Arts

“Spotlight On” is XelaWho’s regular monthly series on all things cultural & artistic in Xela and Guatemala. The topic for November 2009: Day of the Dead traditions in Guatemala by Diana Pastor.

Pobres los que no tienen un muerto, porque no puede celebrar este día”. This is a popular phrase in Guatemala, said in conjunction with November 1st, i.e. Día de Todos los Difuntos, (or Día de Todos los Santos), a.k.a. Day of the Dead. It means “The poor people who don’t have someone deceased because they can’t celebrate this day.” Although the phrase is humorous, it has real meaning for those who keep alive the traditions of the day, making it a celebratory fiesta year after year.

Although November 1st is the official day to celebrate Día de Todos los Difuntos, the preparations begin on October 31st. On this day, families buy bunches and wreaths of flowers to take them the following day to the cemetery. The Minerva Market, one of the principal sources of flowers for this day, transforms itself into a bounty of colors and fragrances.

On November 1st, people make their way to the cemetery in the afternoon to pray for their deceased family members. In addition to flowers and prayers, the deceased are offered a glass of atol de elote, a sort of sweet rice soup with cinnamon and grains of tender corn. Families also bring a small bowl of ayote en dulce, or sweet squash. Before returning to their homes, the oldest family members often make a toast with rum or brandy and light a white candle at the foot of the grave to honor the memory of the deceased.

But the food isn’t just for the dead. At home, families put on a banquet. In addition to the atol de elote and ayote en dulce, they make a sumptuous dish: fiambre. This is a mix of various meats, vegetables, cheeses and condiments.

But the diversity doesn’t just apply to flowers and food. It is common to see kites of different colors zooming through the sky, made from Chinese paper and sold by special vendors. Children who don’t have money to buy a kite make their own from strands of a plant called pajón and nylon bags.

The tradition of flying kites around this time comes from an ancient Guatemalan legend that describes how the souls of the dead in the cemetery of one town were being tormented by harmful spirits. The concerned people consulted with the wise fortune-tellers on how to bring peace back to the dead. The fortune-tellers agreed the the noise of paper caused by wind could scare off the evil spirits. To this day, people continue to follow this advice and thus returning calm to the cemetery.

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