Día de Muertos

Have you ever thought of death as something colorful, cherished, venerated? I imagine not… Death is always the symbol of an end, the ultimate end. Death in many religions is the step to eternity… a transformation. In metaphysics, the changing of matter into energy or light. But something colorful, with music, dancing, delicious food and drink?

That is how “Día de Muertos” is present in Mexico and how it is celebrated. Depending on the region, you may find different types of meals, music, decorations, but the essential elements will always be there: the deceased members of the family, orange flowers called ‘cempasúchitl’ in Mexico, skulls made of sugar or the modern version, made of chocolate, dancing skeletons made of papier mache, or of plastic, and the traditional Pan de Muerto, or ‘bread of the dead’ a sweet yeast bread with formed dough bones as decoration.

Are Mexicans not afraid of dead or why do they seem to mock dead? They write funny poems, called calaveras, that are like a funny obituary to their living friends. They also decorate sugar skulls with the names of the living and they cook the favorite meal of the dead, leaving it served on an altar hoping that the dead will drop by and eat a little bit. These two days in November are then the bridge to the world of the dead… Does that sound creepy? It may be. Where do these ideas come from?

Festivity Day of the Dead

Festivity in Chignahuapan, Puebla

(Picture courtesy of my brother)

In pre-hispanic Mesoamerica, which started in the central part of Mexico and went way south to northern Costa Rica, in the time the aztec empire occupied that area death had a dedicated god. This god of the dead was called Mictlantecuhtli, in Spanish el señor de los muertos, the king of Mictlán (Chicunauhmictlan), a section of the underworld (now take a deep breath and try to pronounce the Aztec words…) As any other aztec god, he was venerated in many different regions and had his own ceremonial rites performed by the priests of dead.

If you want to know more about him, follow this link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mictlantecuhtli

In Mesoamerica, skulls and skeletons were part of the decoration of temples and dead had an important part in everyone’s life.

When the first Spanish missionaries arrived to Mexico around 1530 something, they started converting,missioning, the naturals of those parts of the earth, to the catholic religion. Most of these conversions were forceful and threatening to the so called ‘indian’ population. However, some of the missionaries, being shocked with the brutality used to mission the people, they decided to use a more ‘human’ conversion and they started tolerating some of the traditional rites adapted to catholic celebrations.

More on missionaries in New Spain: http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/los-misioneros-en-la-nueva-espana.html

There is a very old town, rather a village, called San Andrés Mixquic, close to the huge Mexico City where you can appreciate exactly this integration of Aztec beliefs in catholic Mexico. Every Mexican village has a main church and a main square, where people used to gather. Many of theses catholic churches were built using the materials that were part of a pre-hispanic temple. In this town, the cemetery attached to the church still keeps its Aztec decoration, showing skulls, bones and other skeletal parts made of stone to decorate the graves, but also real skulls and bones were piled close to the tombs… This I found really creepy. The graves, that were very old, showed the names of the inhabitants which were usually a Christian first name accompanied by a nahuatl, or aztec, surname. I found this town to be a fantastic relic of the past.

San Andres Mixquic

Cemetery in San Andrés Mixquic

Let’s move to a nicer element, the orange flowers, called Cempasúchitl. The golden orange flower is well known all over the world. It is named “marigold” in the English speaking world and its scientific name is Tagetes erecta. I was reading that in Mexico this flower is also used to cure abdominal pain. In Germany, it is very popular in the Summer gardens to attract snails and avoid them eating other flowers or vegetables.

What about food? I was mentioning above that families like to prepare the favorite meal of the remembered dead family members. However I have never seen KFC (fried chicken) or tiramisu or burritos in any of the altars… So what is usually cooked in these days? In Mexico, as it is Fall, you usually cook a dessert with lots of molasses (in this case a dark sugar cane sirup) and pumpkins. To make it even tastier, cinnamon, cloves and oranges are added, too. You can imagine that every family has a secret recipe. Another traditional dessert is one similar, but using a small orange fruit, sour and tasteless, called “tejocote” instead of pumpkin.

However, a real meal to commemorate your dead relatives would be nothing without some “Pan de Muerto”, Here you can find a recipe, in Spanish though: http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/pan-de-muerto.html

It is usual to find all theses elements on an familiar altar in many Mexican homes. The altar will include cempasúchitl, pan de muerto, may be some “mole”,  or another real spicy dish, and nice photos of the relatives that are not anymore among us.

Family altar, Dia de Muertos

Family altar, courtesy of my cousin

People usually go to the graveyard in those ares and take care of the graves arranging them with colorful flowers. I remember visiting the graves of my grandparents and buying the flowers in one of the many booths at the entrance of the graveyard. I also remember as a child that there were lots of “gladiolas”, gladioli or gladiolus, mostly white or pale pink and carnations.  I don’t know why, but to me these gladioli always make me think of a cemetery…so don’t send me any 😉

I almost forgot to mention the dancing. There was a very famous illustrator, Javier Guadalupe Posada, who depicted skeletons and skulls in Mexican daily life, as part of life and not death. He satirized the political situation of the dictatorial Mexico he lived in.

Music and dancing have an important role in celebrating any festivity. To celebrate Día de Muertos in many cemeteries, especially in the smaller towns and villages, live music is played while children, people and animals, like dogs or pigs, are simply running or playing around. This celebration usually takes place by night and a sea of candles will light the darkness. In Mexico, in the state of Michoacán there is a folk dance called “La Danza de los Viejitos” ( The Dance of the old ones) performed during the celebration of “Dia de Muertos”… a little bit macabre, but quite true…

Bailamos flaquita?

Shall we dance, my skinny one?

Many elements of these celebrations my be found in cultural expressions, for example, in films, paintings, and popular folklore. In 1960, a film conjugated successfully many of these special elements in a surrealistic atmosphere. It is called “Macariobased “on the novel of the same name by B. Traven, set in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (modern-day Mexico)” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macario_(film)).

To finish this fascinating topic, I would like to include some popular sayings in Spanish that show the sarcastic and humorous way of seeing dead in Mexico :

“El muerto al pozo y el vivo al gozo”. (more or less… The dead to the water well and the living to pleasure)

“No andaba muerto, andaba de parranda”. (He wasn’t dead, he was out partying). This is also the refrain of a popular song.

“De gordos y tragones están llenos los panteones”. (Graveyards are full of fat and gluttons) Mmmm, nowadays completely political incorrect. Sorry…

“El que por su boca muere hasta la muerte le sabe”. ( The one who eats by the mouth, savors even the death)

And there are tons and tons of saying, songs, pictures, music… to joke about death in Mexico.

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Flammekueche or tarte flambée?

On Friday morning, my daughter and I started our Easter holidays short trip to France. We took the S-Bahn to the Munich Main Train Station and from there the ICE train to Stuttgart, our first stop. We were a little bit nervous because the time we had to change to the next train, the TGV, was exactly 8 minutes… The TGV was leaving at 12:55, sharp!  I can almost see your smile, if you are not used to the German (or French) time concept. But, yes, the train leaves at exactly that time. On the train they even warned us that the TGV closes its doors two minutes before departure… Oh, 8 minus 2… only 6 minutes to find the right platform and jump into the right train.

As you may see looking at the picture below, we made it! We got on time 🙂 and found our hotel at a walking distance from the Main Train Station. The city we visited was a fortress or a fortified settlement by the road or at the crossing of the roads. This beautiful city is very close to the river Rhine and is situated on the Ill river.

It’s been part of the European heritage since the beginning of human occupation and celts, romans, huns, francs and allemani lived in the region leaving not only their genes, but a big influence in the language.

medieval towers

Medieval towers, entrance to “Petite France”

During the last centuries Strasbourg ( as you may have already guessed…) has changed sides very often; it has been French, than German, than French again, etc.  It’s the main city of the Alsace, it’s the capital of the Bas-Rhine department and is the seat of many European institutions.

Our hotel was in the middle of the Medieval neighborhood, called “Petite France” which is surrounded by water. Walking through the Medieval streets you can really imagine the towns in the Dark Ages.  During our visit the weather was also kind of dark, cold, and windy. Brrr!

Some streets in the Petite France have very old traditional names dedicated to medieval occupations such as the Rue des Dentelles (= lace, fabric), Rue des Tonneliers (cooper), Rue des Charpentiers (= carpenters) or Rue des Serruriers (locksmiths) and other townsmen like Rue des Juifs (= judes), Rue des Frères (= brothers).  Another funny name that caught our attention was the Place of the Suckling Pigs’ Market?!, where you can find many traditional restaurants, gourmet shops and a weekly market.

One of the main attractions on the “Grand Ile”, as downtown is called, is the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  Why are so many churches called that way? Indeed, they are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady.  The construction of the cathedral began in the 12 century, was completed in 1439 and became one of the World’s Tallest Buildings.

A good reading to get an idea of what it took to build such a magnificent building is “Pillars of Earth” by Ken Follet. Another historical novel on that topic is  “La Catedral y el Mar” by Ildefonso Falcones. The former was filmed as a coproduction of German, French, Canada and other film studios.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1453159/?ref_=fn_al_tt_7

Although the cathedral is very impressive, we found another excellent example of Gothic art, the church of “Saint-Pierre-Le-jeune” or the Young Saint Peter. This smaller church is now a protestant church which shows that Strasbourg is one of the cities where you can find catholic and protestant churches hand in hand.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune_Protestant_Church

gothic church

Saint-Pierre-Le-jeune

The church is located in a small quiet street with a tiny garden in front of it and it’s only open in the afternoons. We went into the building and were captivated by the quiet atmosphere, the colored  light penetrating the stained glass windows and, very special, the paintings on the walls. The oldest part of the church was built in the 7th century!

 

wall paintings

Murals all over the walls

The organ is dividing the nave and is beautifully carved. It is placed in the middle of the church and is decorated in blue and red as are most of the walls.

At the end of the nave, there are two chapels, one with the baptismal font and wooden figures and the other one with a wooden angel with wide dark wings. The floor in both chapels is authentic and beautiful.

We went out to the cloister with a water well in the center and a very old stone cross.

stone cross

Old cross

It was getting dark outside, distant gregorian chants were playing and almost all visitors had left. In spite of being in a church, we were almost creeped out, so we decided to leave and have a nice dinner with live music.   No, no brass bands or Oktoberfest songs, we decided to go the Irish pub that is close to the cathedral, on the “Street of the Old Fish Market”.  Thank god, it didn’t smell of old fish 😉

On our last day we visited the cathedral and listened for a while to the Sunday Mass  (sorry we didn’t stay longer…) Afterwards we went to the Historical Museum of the City on the same street as the Irish pub.  The museum is located in Strasbourg’s former slaughterhouse built in 1588, in an area town butchers had occupied since the end of the 13th century… it sounds creepier as it was 😉

http://www.musees.strasbourg.eu/index.php?page=histoire-historique-en

It was a very interesting visit, especially considering the divided story of Strasbourg and the Alsace. The museum is interactive and you can touch, listen, watch and read. We had big fun trying on knight helmets and trying to carry a stone bomb.  We also got a good grasp of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries with its World Wars and their effect on the region.

Leaving the museum, we took a long walk along the river and decided to try a typical menu in the evening. Walking through the narrow streets we came across a small restaurant quite hidden from the tourists. It is called “Au sanglier”. Can you guess the name of the street?  Yes, right, Rue du sanglier (= wild boar). Exactly, this time like Asterix and Obelix.  However, as alsacienne specialties are not known for being light, we decided to skip the wild pig 😉

We made a reservation for 7 p.m. and got there on time… We first had a Kir as an apero. We chose different salads from the salad bar for the first course and a Flammekueche with crispy, thin sliced bacon, onions and sour cream on a very thin flat crust, almost like pizza, for the main course. I had a cold, fruity, but not sweet glass of white wine, called “gentil” with my meal. The name “gentil” or kind and gentle really matched the wine, which was excellent.

As a dessert, included in the menu, (Really, I promise 😉 ) we had a compote of rhubarb with some vanilla ice. I usually don’t like that vegetable in any combination, but I was delighted and enjoyed it very much.

The restaurant “To the wild boar ” is decorated in a traditional style that reminded us of typical German restaurants in Bavaria. It was a little bit macabre because of the wild boar’s head hanging on one of the wall and looking at us. The oddest part of it was, as it was during Easter time,  that some Easter eggs were hanging of nice colored ribbons from its tusks…

We felt transported to the Middle Ages, but we could finish our meal.

The next morning we had a late breakfast and waited for our train to leave this nice city at 13:47 😉

I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour and the reading as much as we enjoyed our trip.