Before Halloween, there was the Day of the Dead in parts of the United States.

October 31, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that occasionally I write about issues part of the American culture that sometimes pop up during a speech and can be useful to interpreters in the booth that are not familiar with U.S. history or traditions. Every year I write about Halloween because it is one tradition everyone follows in the United States not widely known or understood abroad. You can go back to this blog’s archives and read the articles I posted during October on previous years.

This time, I decided to talk about a very popular and unique celebration in Mexico, and among Hispanics in the American Southwest: “El Día de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead).

The Day of the Dead originated before the Europeans arrived to the Americas. It was motivated by the view native people had of death and those who had passed away. Many celebrations varied from town to town. I will focus on the Aztecs because they were the biggest empire in what we now know as Mexico and the southwestern part of the United States, and because observing this holiday was documented by the conquistadors in the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún (originally titled “La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España” _The Universal History of the Things of New Spain_) (Florentine Codex. De Sahagún, Bernardino. 1793. Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy).

Originally the Aztec Empire observed the Day of the Dead holiday during what is now the month of November. In its current, form it was included by UNESCO in the World Heritage List in 2008. It was a religious holiday dedicated to the god and goddess of the underworld (Mictlán): Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl.

When a person died, their soul had to go through several obstacles before it could reach eternal rest. Mictlán (the underworld), was created by the gods of creation (Xipetótec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcóatl, and Huitzilopochtli) and it was divided in nine regions according to the manner of death. The House of the Sun (Tonatiuh Ichan) was reserved for those warriors who died on battlefield. Women who died during childbirth would go to Cihuatlampa; and Cincalco, home of the god Tonacatecutli, was the final resting place for those who died as infants.

The death of an Aztec was announced with chants and tears by elderly women. Next, the body was enshrouded along with its personal belongings and it was symbolically fed the most exquisite dishes. After four days, the body was buried or cremated. At this time the soul started its journey. For four years on the anniversary of the demise, friends and family members would hold ceremonial rituals at the site of the burial to help its soul on its way to its final resting place.

When the Spaniards arrived to Mexico, the holiday was replaced by the Catholic All Saints’ Day, to honor those who died as infants (Día de Todos los Santos), and All Souls’ Day, to honor those who passed away as adults (Día de los Fieles Difuntos) observed on November 1 and 2 respectively.

According to tradition, the souls of those who died come back to visit their family, and their living relatives greet them with an offering, on an altar, where they place a portrait of the deceased. They burn incense or copal (from the Náhuatl word copalli, meaning incense) an aromatic tree resin from the copal used as incense by pre-Columbian people during religious ceremonies so the deceased relative can smell it and find the altar where the family awaits. They also put veladoras (candles) to represent fire and light. They also help the soul of the deceased by showing them where the offerings in their honor are. Water and the person’s favorite beverage in life are on the altar, with cempasúchil flowers, the twenty petal flower, sugar skulls (Aztecs used real human skulls during their empire) and a special sweet bread called Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) named this way because it complements the sugar skull, as this bread is the representation of the skeleton of the deceased. Sometimes, cigarettes, paper ornaments in festive colors, and festive, funny poems about the person who passed away (calaveritas literarias) are also part of the offering.

This tradition is popular in Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro (Michoacán) and San Andrés Mixquic, a former island in the middle of the now dry Lake Chalco, in southeastern Mexico City (Tláhuac Borough) where friends and family members go to the cemetery, clean the graves, and set up the offerings, including food and drinks, before they sit down and spend the night by the gravesite waiting for thee souls to come. During the night, family members do an “alumbrada”, the lighting of thousands of candles that make the cemetery glow. Although the festivities at these two cemeteries are now touristic attractions, seen by thousands who go to these towns from all over the world, this tradition can be seen in most Mexican homes and cemeteries, and in the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States where Mexicans and other Latin American groups observe the traditional offerings, and religious rituals.

In the 21st century, many people have combined the Day of the Dead holiday with Halloween. It is common to see families participating in both traditions in both, Mexico and the United States.

Next time you are interpreting, and a speaker refers to the Day of the Dead, or somebody asks you if it is the same as Halloween, you can now explain what it is, and you can tell them the difference between them. Because the Day of the Dead is observed in many countries throughout the world, I now invite you to share with us the traditions and festivities linked to this season in your country of origin.

Las Posadas: The Mexican Christmas Season and Terminology.

December 19, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every year when December comes along I find myself answering questions from friends and acquaintances about how Latin America, and specifically Mexico, celebrate the holiday season. American friends who want to organize a celebration for their children, school teachers who are staging the festivities for the school play, community center activists who want to celebrate the season with a cultural event, come to me to learn about the traditions, food, celebrations, and vocabulary.  Because this year has not been different, I decided to repost one of my most popular articles where I write about the most Mexican of these traditions: The posada. In Mexico the fiestas decembrinas begin unofficially with the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and last through January 6 when they celebrate the Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) but the festivities are in full swing with the beginning of the posadas. Mexicans celebrate the posadas every evening from December 16 to 24. They actually started as a Catholic novenario (nine days of religious observance based on the nine months that María carried Jesus in her womb). The posadas re-enact Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter; the word posada means “lodging” in Spanish.

Posada drawing

Traditionally, a party is held each night in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the house with children who sometimes dress as shepherds, angels and even Mary and Joseph. An “angel” leads the procession, followed by Mary and Joseph or by participants carrying their images. The adults follow, carrying lighted candles.

The “pilgrims” sing a litany asking for shelter, and the hosts sing a reply, finally opening the doors to the guests and offering Mexican traditional Christmas dishes such as hot ponche, a drink of tejocotes (a Mexican fruit that tastes like an apricot/apple) guavas, oranges, sugar cane, and cinnamon mixed and simmered in hot water and served with rum or brandy; fried crisp Mexican cookies known as buñuelos, steaming hot tamales, a staple of the Mexican diet since pre-Hispanic days, and other festive foods.

Ponche

Spanish priest and chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún observed that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamales: tamales with amaranth leaves for the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, tamales with beans and chiles for the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca, shrimp and chile sauce tamales for the ancient deity Huehuetéotl. Besides tamales stuffed with turkey meat, beans and chiles, the Aztecs used what they harvested from the shores of Lake Texcoco, including fish and frogs, to fill tamales. Sahagún tells us that pocket-gopher tamales were “always tasty, savory, of very pleasing odor.” The Maya also produced artistic, elaborate tamales; toasted squash seeds and flowers, meat, fish, fowl, and beans were all used as fillings. Deer meat, especially the heart, was favored for special offerings. Besides being steamed, tamales were roasted on the comal (grill) or baked in the pib, or pit oven.

Finally, after everybody ate and had fun, the party ends with a piñata. In some places, the last posada, held on Christmas Eve (December 24) is followed by midnight Catholic mass, a tradition that lives on in countless Mexican towns.

Pinata

These are the lyrics to the traditional posada litany.  I have included the original Spanish lyrics and a widely accepted English translation that rimes with the tune. Now you can sing the litany in Spanish or in English at your next posada, or even better, have a bilingual posada and sing the litany twice.

                        Español

English

Outside   Singers

Inside   Response

Outside   Singers

Inside   Response

En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.
Aquí no es   mesón,
sigan adelante
Yo no debo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.
In the name of Heaven I beg you for lodging,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife.
This is not an inn
so keep going
I cannot open
you may be a rogue.
No seas   inhumano,
tennos caridad,
que el Dios de los cielos
te lo premiará.
Ya se pueden ir
y no molestar
porque si me enfado
os voy a apalear.
Don’t be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens
will reward you for it.
You can go on now
and don’t bother us,
because if I become annoyed
I’ll give you a trashing.
Venimos rendidos
desde Nazaret,
yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.
No me importa el   nombre,
déjenme dormir,
pues que yo les digo
que no hemos de abrir.
We are worn out
coming from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter,
Joseph by name.
I don’t care about your name:
Let me sleep,
because I already told you
we shall not open up.
Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.
Pues si es una   reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?
I’m asking you for lodging
dear man of the house
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.
Well, if it’s a queen
who solicits it,
why is it at night
that she travels so alone?
Mi esposa es   María,
es Reina del Cielo
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.
¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
Entren, peregrinos,
no los conocía.
My wife is Mary
She’s the Queen of Heaven
and she’s going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.
Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter pilgrims;
I did not recognize you.
Dios pague,   señores,
vuestra caridad,
y que os colme el cielo
de felicidad.
¡Dichosa la casa
que alberga este día
a la Virgen pura.
La hermosa María!
May God pay, gentle folks,
your charity,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.
Blessed is the house
that shelters this day
the pure Virgin,
the beautiful Mary.
Upon opening the doors at the final   stop, the tune changes, the pilgrims enter, and all sing these final verses   in unison:
Entren, Santos   Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón,
que aunque es pobre la morada,
os la doy de corazón.
Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor,
I offer it with all my heart.
Oh, peregrina   agraciada, oh, bellísima María. Yo te ofrezco el alma mía para que tengáis   posada. Oh, graced pilgrim,
oh, most beautiful Mary.
I offer you my soul
so you may have lodging.
Humildes peregrinos
Jesús, María y José,
el alma doy por ellos,
mi corazón también.
Humble pilgrims,
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.
Cantemos con   alegría
todos al considerar
que Jesús, José y María
nos vinieron a honrar.
Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary
honor us by having come.

Peregrinos

I wish you all a happy holiday season.  Please feel free to contribute to this post by sharing some holiday traditions from your home countries.

Las Posadas: The Mexican Christmas Season and Terminology.

December 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every year when December comes along I find myself answering questions from friends and acquaintances about how Latin America, and specifically Mexico, celebrate the holiday season. American friends who want to organize a celebration for their children, school teachers who are staging the festivities for the school play, community center activists who want to celebrate the season with a cultural event, come to me to learn about the traditions, food, celebrations, and vocabulary.  Because this year has not been different, I decided to write about the most Mexican of these traditions: The posada. In Mexico the fiestas decembrinas begin unofficially with the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and last through January 6 when they celebrate the Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) but the festivities are in full swing with the beginning of the posadas. Mexicans celebrate the posadas every evening from December 16 to 24. They actually started as a Catholic novenario (nine days of religious observance based on the nine months that María carried Jesus in her womb). The posadas re-enact Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter; the word posada means “lodging” in Spanish.

Posada drawing

Traditionally, a party is held each night in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the house with children who sometimes dress as shepherds, angels and even Mary and Joseph. An “angel” leads the procession, followed by Mary and Joseph or by participants carrying their images. The adults follow, carrying lighted candles.

The “pilgrims” sing a litany asking for shelter, and the hosts sing a reply, finally opening the doors to the guests and offering Mexican traditional Christmas dishes such as hot ponche, a drink of tejocotes (a Mexican fruit that tastes like an apricot/apple) guavas, oranges, sugar cane, and cinnamon mixed and simmered in hot water and served with rum or brandy; fried crisp Mexican cookies known as buñuelos, steaming hot tamales, a staple of the Mexican diet since pre-Hispanic days, and other festive foods.

Ponche

Spanish priest and chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún observed that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamales: tamales with amaranth leaves for the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, tamales with beans and chiles for the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca, shrimp and chile sauce tamales for the ancient deity Huehuetéotl. Besides tamales stuffed with turkey meat, beans and chiles, the Aztecs used what they harvested from the shores of Lake Texcoco, including fish and frogs, to fill tamales. Sahagún tells us that pocket-gopher tamales were “always tasty, savory, of very pleasing odor.” The Maya also produced artistic, elaborate tamales; toasted squash seeds and flowers, meat, fish, fowl, and beans were all used as fillings. Deer meat, especially the heart, was favored for special offerings. Besides being steamed, tamales were roasted on the comal (grill) or baked in the pib, or pit oven.

Finally, after everybody ate and had fun, the party ends with a piñata. In some places, the last posada, held on Christmas Eve (December 24) is followed by midnight Catholic mass, a tradition that lives on in countless Mexican towns.

Pinata

These are the lyrics to the traditional posada litany.  I have included the original Spanish lyrics and a widely accepted English translation that rimes with the tune. Now you can sing the litany in Spanish or in English at your next posada, or even better, have a bilingual posada and sing the litany twice.

                        Español

English

Outside   Singers

Inside   Response

Outside   Singers

Inside   Response

En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.
Aquí no es   mesón,
sigan adelante
Yo no debo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.
In the name of Heaven I beg you for lodging,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife.
This is not an inn
so keep going
I cannot open
you may be a rogue.
No seas   inhumano,
tennos caridad,
que el Dios de los cielos
te lo premiará.
Ya se pueden ir
y no molestar
porque si me enfado
os voy a apalear.
Don’t be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens
will reward you for it.
You can go on now
and don’t bother us,
because if I become annoyed
I’ll give you a trashing.
Venimos rendidos
desde Nazaret,
yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.
No me importa el   nombre,
déjenme dormir,
pues que yo les digo
que no hemos de abrir.
We are worn out
coming from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter,
Joseph by name.
I don’t care about your name:
Let me sleep,
because I already told you
we shall not open up.
Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.
Pues si es una   reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?
I’m asking you for lodging
dear man of the house
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.
Well, if it’s a queen
who solicits it,
why is it at night
that she travels so alone?
Mi esposa es   María,
es Reina del Cielo
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.
¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
Entren, peregrinos,
no los conocía.
My wife is Mary
She’s the Queen of Heaven
and she’s going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.
Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter pilgrims;
I did not recognize you.
Dios pague,   señores,
vuestra caridad,
y que os colme el cielo
de felicidad.
¡Dichosa la casa
que alberga este día
a la Virgen pura.
La hermosa María!
May God pay, gentle folks,
your charity,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.
Blessed is the house
that shelters this day
the pure Virgin,
the beautiful Mary.
Upon opening the doors at the final   stop, the tune changes, the pilgrims enter, and all sing these final verses   in unison:
Entren, Santos   Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón,
que aunque es pobre la morada,
os la doy de corazón.
Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor,
I offer it with all my heart.
Oh, peregrina   agraciada, oh, bellísima María. Yo te ofrezco el alma mía para que tengáis   posada. Oh, graced pilgrim,
oh, most beautiful Mary.
I offer you my soul
so you may have lodging.
Humildes peregrinos
Jesús, María y José,
el alma doy por ellos,
mi corazón también.
Humble pilgrims,
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.
Cantemos con   alegría
todos al considerar
que Jesús, José y María
nos vinieron a honrar.
Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary
honor us by having come.

Peregrinos

I wish you all a happy holiday season.  Please feel free to contribute to this post by sharing some holiday traditions from your home countries.

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