A few months ago I received an email request from a small town in Texas. The writer Ray and his fiance wanted my guidance in celebrating the Day of the Dead. My answer was – celebrate it in your own way. After all, the customs for the Days of the Dead: November 1 – Dia de los Angelitos (Children’s Day); November 2 – Dia de los Difuntos (All Souls Day), in Mexico are are a composite of rituals and symbols from Inca, Axtec, Maya, and even Toltec, as well as a few Chrstian ones thrown in for good measure. Undoubtedly the practices of the Aztec dead feast day (Miccailhuitl) influences today’s rites.
Some tribes took certain myths and created their customs. Others based their rituals on other mythical tales. So you see, you can do whaever seems appropriate to remember those who have died and to feel part of the celebrations and mourning here in Mexico.
One year, I dedicated my altar to my dog Rosemary, who would have appreciated being remembered on the Dia de los Angelitos. The preparations to remember infants and children who died so young always touches my heart. The mythology of the Aztec tribes has it that los angelitos go to a part of Paradise where there is a tree of human breasts, and they sit under it with their mouths open. The Mískito indians say that they go to Mother Scorpion, a tall woman with many breasts.
On my altar I laid Rose’s collar and chain, and a food bowl filled with fresh tortillas and branches of the pungent herb Rosemary. Rosemary was a dead-ringer for those terra cotta statues of dancing dogs you see in Mexico – same colour and body.
Dogs are a recurring feature of the funereal lore the Purépecha, Nahua, Populuca, Tzotzil, Chinatec and Aztec peoples. They still tell the same tales told by Popul Vuh and the Aztec mythology written by Indian scribes after the conquest.
A black dog guards the river (or pot of boiling water) which the souls of the dead must cross. In Michoacan, the Purépecha (Tarascans as anthropologists call them) warn that if a man abuses a dog, the dog complains to God. Judging from what I’ve seen, God must hear a lot of complaints.
In some areas sweet breads in the shape of dogs and humans are baked in clay ovens and sold on the Day of the Dead. So, there is ample precedent for revering dogs. But I wasn’t thinking of all that when I made my altar that year. I was only feeling how much I missed my dancing doggie. I still do.
So, Ray, as you can see, any ritual that expresses your sentiments for departed loved ones, and draws you closer to who they were in this life is acceptable. Whether you create an altar with their favorite foods, drinks, or other enjoyments so that they can share this day with you, or whether you just keep them in your mind, you will be sharing Los Dias de los Muertos with us, here in México.