04 November 2006

Todos Santos

November 1st is a day of importance in Guatemala. All Saints' Day, known to all Catholics, has mixed in with various other traditions to make it a day of sadness, joy, and superstition. For Todos Santos, the center of all festivities is the cemetery. For days before, people prepare flowers and various decorations for the graves and tombs of loved ones. I have been told that in parts of Mexico, the floral arrangements and decorations are even more elaborate and often take the entire morning simply to set up. The dominant decoration are marigold flowers, known here as el flor del muerte, the flower of death. The holiday is celebrated by all, and, considering that cemeteries are owned and managed by the local government, the day can be considered relatively ecumenical. There is, however, a Catholic mass given in the cemetery at some point in the day.

Outside of the cemetery, vendors of all sorts are selling their wares, but mostly food and beer (not acceptable except on holidays). In some towns, bands are present playing in the streets as well. People may spend their nearly their entire day in or near the cemetery. Many men of all seemed to do so drinking. Most of the women, however, returned to their houses to continue various chores or cooking the food of the holiday.

The traditional food of Todos Santos is fiambre, which is a 'salad' that includes most of the following ingredients: onions, lots of beets, mini-corn, carrots, strings of tinier mini-corn, red peppers , beef, shrimp, hot dogs, lettuce, peas, asparagus, other various meats and various beans, all soaked in lots and lots of white vinegar for hours. It's actually pretty tasty, but you have to really like vinegar. I liked it just because you have a chance of getting a good portion of vegetables. Another typical food of the day is jocotes and other small fruits soaked in a mixture water, cinnamon, and sugar. These are delicious.. Lastly, a type of mole (MOL-ay) is also served. Mole is a common dish throughout Spain and many of its former colonies, but each region seems to define it differently. The basic universal of mole seems to be chocolate. Here it also includes lots of mild peppers, some corn flour, plenty of sugar, onions, garlic, and some pureed beans I think. It is served tepid, and large slices of plantains. I believe that most mole usually includes meat, but here the plantains take its place. It is mostly sweet but a little salty and has the consistency of thick gravy over chunks of plantains. It is really delicious.

Besides the traditional religious superstitions of graveyards and remembering the dead, legends suggest that there is a lot of spirit activity in the graveyards during the days (and nights) of November 1 and 2. Both good and spirits are out and about during this time. Kites are traditionally flown to scare away the bad spirits. These kites include noisy streamers and often have whistles built into them to scare the spirits more. In addition, babies and infants are often kept away from the cemetery in order to avoid the risk of being possessed by the wandering evil spirits. Though it doesn't appear these beliefs are strongly held by the majority of the population, their traditions remain, and children, if no one else, are rather unlikely to let an excuse to fly kites go by.

In Santiago Sacatepequez, a tradition has developed over the past century of flying bigger and bigger kites. At some point this evolved into one of the largest annual tourist events in Guatemala. Kites often feature Guatemalan cultural values and shared cultural history and legend. Kites featuring Jesus, patriotic symbols, anti-drug messages, Mayan or Spanish cultural references, and business advertisements filled the sky over a beautiful valley. Kites are made out of tissue paper and large bamboo sticks. Kites could be as large as four stories tall and, once in the sky, were usually only manned by one person. Children all had their own normal sized kites, and run around the cemetery trying to get them to fly. Even when the wind was too low for the large kites, dozens of children's kites were in the air. Pictures to come soon.

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