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Friday, November 14, 2008

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The pounding sounds of drums, the smoke of incense, flickering candles on the altars dedicated to the deceased, and thousands of marigolds on the ground and on the altars—Life and Death Traditions Festival at eco-park Xcaret in Riviera Maya, is one of the many festive happenings in this young and fast-growing resort area of Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
In the dark, the air was fragrant with flowers and cool with sea breeze. A crowd of women in colorful embroidered dresses and men, clad in white, did not look sad—they were smiling. The Days of the Dead are not for grieving, but for greeting the dearly departed.
“People put candles on the ground, so the spirits of their dead relatives would find the way home,” explained Iliana Rodriguez, who’s been working for the theme park for many years. “After the celebration, the spirits have seven days to depart, so the candles are showing the way out, and family members throw some change through the door to help them with the ‘travel expenses.’ Nobody wants the dead to stay forever—they better come visit again next year.”
If spirits don’t depart on time, they become lost souls, unable to return to the other side or to come visit with their family again. Every year, kindhearted housewives leave some chicken drumsticks in the front yard for those hungry lost souls who might roam around.
This charming and humorous way of dealing with the greatest mystery of existence has its roots in an ancient Mayan belief, according to which the dead descend into the underworld, where they embark on a long and dangerous journey, which usually exhausts them and makes them hungry and thirsty. After successfully completing the journey, the dead return to their kin year after year until they are reincarnated for their next life.
In anticipation of these annual meetings, families clean their houses; cook special dishes, associated with the holiday; build makeshift altars, and decorate them with orange and white flowers—symbols of sun and clouds, paper-cut ornaments, toy skeletons, and photographs.
When a family sits down to dinner, cracking jokes and even teasing the dead as if they were alive and present, is customary.
In Mexico, people believe that their loved ones are not really dead as long as they are being remembered; therefore a lot of effort is invested into preserving memory…
October 31 is dedicated to the deceased children, and November 1 to the adults. On a child’s altar there would be toys and chocolate, and on an adult’s one—professional equipment, favorite foods, or accessories.
A typical altar reflects the three levels of the world, as it was perceived in pre-Hispanic Mexico: the dwelling of 13 Mayan gods (sky) on the top, Earth in the middle, and the underworld, where the nine vengeful gods live and test human souls, at the bottom.At Xcaret, the festival program includes an exhibit of altars, created by the park workers and guests from remote Mayan villages; genuine arts and crafts; traditional meals cooked on premises; open stages with multiple folkloric and classic performers, and even a mock cemetery, where five commissioned artists recreated some most interesting examples of typical gravesites with miniature haciendas, churches, and castles for gravestones. The annual event also helps people from different villages in the depth of selva meet and communicate with each other.
Photography by Yuri Krasov. 1. A makeshift altar and women in Yucatan dresses in Playa del Carmen on the Day of the Dead. 2. Young people with skull-painted faces join a night of fun at Xcaret.


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