Book Report

Day of the Dead by Kitty Williams and Stevie Mack

Day of the Dead by Kitty Williams and Stevie Mack. Gibbs Smith, publisher, Layton Utah, 2011. $ 19.98. 128 pp.


51BW4lvSW8L._SX425_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWhat is this most important holiday of dancing skeletons, glamorous catrinas, elaborate sugar skulls, and graveyard vigils all about? Octavio Paz, a famous author, explains it well, “ the inhabitant of New York, Paris, or London, death is a word never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it; it is one of his favorite playthings and his most enduring love.”

As for me, I have always greatly admired the Mexican ability to celebrate anything, even death! This culture accepts what is inevitable and takes a tragic and tear filled time, turning it around ito make a special day when they can offer respect and celebrate the lives of those in their family who are gone.

Sugar skulls, trucks full of orange and gold marigolds, creating personal ofrendas (altars decorated with mementos and photos of the departed person honored), and fixing favorite foods for relatives (both living and those who’ve gone on), the special day of the dead bread, colorful paper picadores (the colored tissue paper banners hanging over streets and in some restaurants), it’s all good fun. When completed the sculptures are highlighted with crumbled and strained plaster in many colors, (this is done most often in Oaxaca, symbolizing without words how fragile and tenuous our lives are). There are also descriptions of comparsas, a kind of street carnival with mummers, dancing skeletons, and giant puppets. Although, to some, the subject of the art and food may seem a bit macabre, each example has meaning, most of it with respect and with roots in religion. This book explains the meanings and significance of everything from flower petals, to fragile tissue paper banners.

What a timely find this was! A medium sized coffee table book of interest on so very many levels. What questions do you have about day of the dead in Mexico? Thumb through the book first, stopping at anything that interests you. Do you want to read of the ancient origins spanning several cultures? I love history, so of course, those were the first pages I read.

The present celebrations and rituals have their beginnings in prehistory, and many come from Aztec religions, and are influenced by the Mayan culture centuries before. The Aztecs believed that “ arises out of death.” Realizing that life was temporary, fragile, and that time moves all too quickly, they believed that heaven was awarded, not by how people lived, but how they died. They also thought there were 13 levels, or layers of heavens, and nine levels of an underworld.

Now enter Cortez, and Catholicism with many saints, and feast days that could be moved or altered a bit to encompass native beliefs. And so, they combined traditions and rituals, adding traditions from Europe, particularly Spain, a few of those dating from pagan times.

Perhaps the descriptions of different customs in varied Mexican locales can help you plan a trip for next year. It seems, the biggest and most elaborate celebrations can be found in big cities, but know that each region is unique. Fiestas and celebrations are, at times, the only luxuries some very poor have in their lives, and so they do it up right.

The full page colored photographs of all of the subjects covered in the book, are worth much more than a thousand words. The authors show us many different regional variations, but the theme is the same; laugh at what you fear, and even more, respect and honor family and ancestors.

The ancient traditions are fascinating, but the section on contemporary art adds to the book’s value. Do you know who, how, and when the elegant and elaborately dressed catrina images emerged and became popular? What other forms of contemporary folk art can be found?

Finally, there is a how-to section for constructing an ofrenda, the first place a departed spirit is welcomed back for a 24 hours break from wherever they are, in a day combining religion and fiestas. Also there are directions for paper cutting, and making elaborate sugar skulls, day of the dead bread ( pan de muerte), candied pumpkin (dulce’s de calabeza), hot drinks, and even a fairly simple mole sauce.

The very last page has a long list of resources, giving addresses, web sites, and telephone numbers as well as suggestions of where and how to order or purchase quality ingredients for success. I think I will try the Mexican coffee, the bread, and perhaps the candied pumpkin. If that’s successful, next year I’ll be ready to take on the sugar skulls!

Day of the Dead, by Kitty Williams and Stevie Mack 128 pages, costs 19.95, and is available at El Caballo Blanco bookstore in Loreto. If you make successful sugar skulls, please tell me how you did it!