THE ALTARS AND THE ROLE OF EPHEMERA
No exploration of the Day of the Dead would be complete without a discussion of the empheral creations used in its celebration. Most of the elaborate Day of the Dead altars found in Oaxacan homes are adorned with authentic works of art meant to last no longer than the fiesta itself.
To Western culture oriented to preserving everything as long as possible, it may seem strange to expend so much labor on objects having no other purpose than to be consumed and destroyed. Mexicans, especially indigenous Oaxacans, see themselves as empheral beings in an empheral world. To enjoy material objects, yet be willing to relinquish them, is totally natural to them.
Nothing is more empheral than the sugar used to make elaborate skulls, angels, and animals for the Day of the Dead. Saving these items for the following year would never occur to Oaxacans. Children used to wait all year for parents to buy them calaveras de azucar with their names inscribed in the icing. Today, chocolate skulls are replacing the sugar ones, but the tradition of eating sweet skulls is as alive as ever.
Papel picados - intricately cut tissue paper banners depicting scenes of skeletons dancing, drinking and otherwise celebrating - are strung along the edge of altars, creating a lacey border. Non-Mexicans often ask how to preserve them. "You shouldn't," I say, "because they were never made for that." Such emphemera celebrate other events and fiestas as well. White tissue paper is used for weddings. Red, white and green commemorate Independence Day. A riot of color surrounds the Day of the Dead. When fiestas end, papel picados are left to fly in the open air until rain reduces them to nothing.
Flowers, candles and incense are indispensable to any lovingly adorned altar. Wax flowers, fruits, and cherubs decorate hand-dipped beeswax candles. As the candles burn non-stop, the wax decorations are set aside to be melted for the next batch of candles.
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