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THE DAY OF THE DEAD
All the indigenous communities of Guatemala have incorporated into to their ancient rites and ceremonies the customs brought by the Spaniards in the conquest and colonization of the New World almost five hundred years ago
. An example of the fusion of things Catholic and pagan are the Day of the Dead ceremonies. These are common throughout the country, and each community adds its own color and pageantry to the event.
At the end of October each year, Guatemalans set up altars in their homes dedicated to those who have passed away. In the center, they place photographs of their loved ones and around these they arrange an offering of water, flowers, votive candles and different kinds of food and drink: aguardiente (a liquor made from sugar cane), bread, fruit and atole (non-alcoholic drink made with water and corn flour.)
. The ritual continues into the pre-dawn hours of November 1st, when the members of the family place flowers in the doors of the house to welcome the departed souls. Then comes the rite of "dressing" the graves. The family goes to the cemetery and places flowers on the small hillocks, the last resting place of those who have gone before. They leave wreaths of wax-paper flowers at the head of the grave and then prepare the food which they will eat right there, in a symbolic breaking of bread with the dearly departed.
The meal consists of fiambre, a type of Spanish stew made of meat or fish, vegetables, olives and capers; and canshul (based on regional vegetables) which the family eats by the grave.
Even though the altar and the meal in the cemetery are common to almost all Guatemala's indigenous communities, some add other elements to the ceremony. On All Saint's Day the inhabitants of Cuchumatan (about 290 kilometers from the capital, Guatemala City) celebrate with marimba music and fireworks, which they set off inside the cemetery. They are absolutely certain that the dead are participating in the festivities, which last into the wee hours of the morning. This community party becomes private when each family serenades their loved ones with the songs they enjoyed in life.
Santiago Sacatepequez is a community located east of the capital. To celebrate the Day of the Dead, the townspeople construct barriletes, enormous kites made of crepe paper and bamboo which can measure up to seven meters long by three meters wide. On November 1st and 2nd, each family takes its kite to an open field for it to soar through the skies. In this way they call to the departed, who identify their family by the colors used in the kite and slide down the string to join them below.
The kites are burned so the dead may quietly return to their world. It is thought that if the kites are not burned, the souls won't know how to return home and they will stay, damaging those who mourn them.
Chintla is another Guatemalan town which celebrates the Day of the Dead in an unusual way. Every November 1st, they organize horse races from the town to the cemetery and back, a kind of competition between the living and their ancestors.