They hung paper streamers across the plaza the other day. These brightly colored paper cutouts known as “papel picado” are used throughout the year to dress up every Mexican fiesta but this is the time when they really get to shine. This is Dios de los Muertes (http://muertos.palomar.edu/dayofthedead.htm), the season when every Mexican family pays respect to their dearly departed. While the American tradition of dressing in costume has a great appeal here to a culture that loves street theater, the unique customs of Day of the Dead are still honored with an outpouring of energy typical of this culture’s approach to celebrations. Unlike the other fiestas we’ve experienced since we’ve arrived (and there have been many!) where the papel picado strung across the streets are the more common, machine made cutouts, they now take the time to carefully hand-cut them with elaborately detailed designs. Then they are raised prominently right across the main plaza to fly in the breeze until the ancestral spirits are chased back to heaven at the end of November 2nd.
All this fuss about the spirits of the dead seems odd to me because something tells me its superstitious and irrational. Certainly a night spent at father’s grave with candles, incense and plates of food to beckon him back doesn’t fit neatly into my experience or understanding. The vigil part makes some sense, but the plates of food? I’m sure this is where I part ways. The spirits aren’t actually returning are they? And a bit peckish at that? But then, what exactly are these plates of food? The very things papa enjoyed while living; enchiladas mole, chicken with rice and beans, cerveza fria. These simple details soon expand into a flood of memories and regardless of what logic may not allow, those memories have now created a presence. Dear papa has arrived in the circle of those who share his memory. Now whether or not he likes the same old cooking…
My culture chooses to denigrate the value of the emotional, irrational mind, largely to its own detriment. There are some very fundamental and persistent enigmas that can’t be approached any other way. The rational day cycles with irrational night and they both have their place and time. As much as we try to banish the irrational, it never really disappears. I began thinking about my culture’s rituals to see how the irrational sneaks in the back door.
The rituals we all share are almost transparent, so much so that we would hardly see them as superstitious. What is with lighting and blowing out candles on a birthday? Or what is the “laying of the cornerstone” ceremony, or even the singing of the National Anthem at ballgames? Why do we do these things? Well, because they feel right and because they are the right thing to do. And actually that’s reason enough. Rituals only persist as long as they “feel right”. Those that lose that emotional connection, or those that succumb to logic and are designated “silly” or “old fashioned” tend to fade away. It could happen to the candles on the cake. It’s what happened to the curtsy. And then there are the other behaviors that become “just a superstition”, like those encounters with black cats, ladders and sidewalk cracks. Hard to imagine they were all highly respected ritual behaviors at one time, ignored only at great risk.
So, are all rituals eventually doomed to the ash heap of “silly superstitious behavior”? Maybe, but I don’t think its appropriate to judge their worth based on whether or not they are sensible, or even logical. Even the rituals we buy into completely and follow habitually look a little silly when you step aside and get “objective” in that way. The only reason that really matters is whether they help us to connect to a shared emotional experience, not whether they look silly to some third party. A wonderful thing happens when we can give ourselves over to a commonly shared ritual. To perform a ritual that your community holds dear, and to perform it with conviction and absolute focus can be uncommonly powerful. We’re just awfully self-conscious about the whole ordeal because we’re sure that somebody will call us on it at any time. Just what the heck are you doing anyway?