Day of the Dead around San Cristobal de las Casas

2022-11-16 @Travel

Mexico holds a remarkable tradition concerning death and the passing of souls. Arguably the more prolific period of the year - the culminating days of October, the commencement of November, Death is esteemed … revered … celebrated.

Let’s take us to San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern state Chiapas. Though not among the most famous of countrywide celebratory sites, San Cristobal still organizes an impressive series of processions, altars and rituals I’ve not previously experienced but in a heavily commercialized package (ie the Puerto Vallarta boardwalk).

Creepy face-painted and masked visages groomed in macabre apparel invade the city center. Illuminated altars issue forth offerings of fruit, tomales, atole (corn concoctions), alcoholic and carbonated beverages.

The underlying idea? That the dead make a return visit and briefly reunite with their living kin. Or such anyway through a very simplified lens.

For the subsequent step of our journey, lets explore the neighboring town of San Juan de Chamula for something even more astonishing.

Now while San Cristobal already sees a significant Tzotzil presence exhibiting own customs and language we often hear on the streets and points of commerce, the indigenous group comprises most of the Chamula populace.

Commencing at the central plaza, we see the commerce slightly wane for presumably the nagging rainfall expected to sporadically frustrate our afternoon excursion.

See the vestiture? The women wear the black sheep or lamb fur dresses; the men sport the similarly crafted white furry jackets, the fashion not altogether at odds with the North-American Indian counterpart I’d seen but through the distortion of technicolor westerns.

Straight ahead rises the imposing central church (Iglesia de San Juan Batista) erected 1522-1524 as denoted up at the canopy. The white base, forest green outlines, curved protrusions, flowery engravings - the ecclesiastic edifice transmits an aspect of an Eastern Orthodox church with a psychedelic makeover.

To behold the inner chambers we reluctantly pay the entry fee. But eureka, the enchantment! Where have we found candlelight in such awe-inspiring extravagance but for an Indian New Year or the Walpurgis night witches gathering?

The massive flaming chandelier directly out of King Arthur’s court, the animal icons across the ceiling, dry leaved branches in no small quantities: and that pervasive yellowish flower specimen best represented in the circular heath dead center is the ‘flor de muerto’, the flower of the dead, aka Cempasúchil.

The interior still partially respects the European church tradition, among which we find biblical imagery and rows of glass enclosures housing patron saints. And yet the occult element prevails.

Alas, it breaks our hearts to learn no sacrificial ceremony is to take place this day.

Bells, bells, bells continuously clang. Unreal.

Let us now gather about the town cemetery - the Panteón, the focal point of today’s Day of the Day proceeding. Observe. Where one would normally expect silence and mourning we see excitement, music and feasting.

As we approach we find each grave ornamented in gastronomical offerings and such memorabilia we expect anywhere but the cemetery.

This town also holds renown for the ceremonial and nearly sacred status of Coca Cola. The soda appears to take the place of wine or even baptismal liquids.

We thus see Coke in crazy abundant consumption, as offerings and even as cleansing or (had I not hallucinated) plant watering apparatus. Coke vendors are likewise everywhere in view.

Musical entertainment enlivens diverse graves: the winds, the strings (guitar, ukulele and the acoustic bass contraption I evidently fail to classify) and the accordion executed by the elegantly dressed Mariachi.

Citizens eat fruit, drink beer (and Cola), pass great joy and simultaneous woe.

We find not only whole food products and unopened beverages but also fruit casks and empty bottles, giving the scenery the divided appearance of an enchanted garden with just a bit of a public dump.

Unreal. And surreal. If Dali indeed attributed his sole visit to Mexico to an overabundance of surrealism, I can relate. Or had Edgar Poe ever experienced the ancient phenomenon abounding these lands: how at odds with the customary Gothic morbidity we find in those horror narratives?

Questions, comments? Connect.