Archive for the ‘Rituals’ Category

When my brother in St. Louis e-mailed my mother over the weekend, he said he wished he’d been able to locate some blank sugar skulls so he could write my father’s name on one for Day of the Dead. I searched around on the Internet and found that we could have ordered some, or even gotten molds and made our own.

I also found a crochet pattern for a skull, and considered making one, then embroidering Dad’s name, along with the other decorative flourishes. But I realized I suffer from some kind of cultural disconnect from the whole Day of the Dead ritual.

For one thing, I just can’t write loved ones’ names on skulls. I guess Mexican culture is healthier because they robustly face the reality of mortality, bones and all. I’m not sure I could write even pets’ names on skulls. It’s not a ritual I’m accustomed to; and because of that, I guess, it makes me uncomfortable. I like the decorated skulls as motifs, and I’ve even toyed with the idea of getting some of the little Day of the Dead figurines; but I could never assign specific personas of deceased loved ones to the figures.

I think another problem specifically related to my father is that the whole idea of a candy skull with a dead relative’s name written on it would have been abhorrent to him – especially his name. And he definitely wouldn’t have been into the decorative style of the embellished skulls, all the bright colors and flowers and curlicues. (Of course, it kind of amuses me to imagine his face if he saw one of these skull tributes to him. I doubt he would have known what to make of it.)

I also thought about the ofrenda. Besides the basic things, like flowers and water and a razor, I don’t know what I’d put on the altar. He was a recovering alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver, so any kind of booze doesn’t seem right. He gave up smoking years ago, but the heavy smoking he did for over half his life probably contributed to the stroke that killed him. Not to mention many of his favorite foods, from Big Boys to barbecue ribs to the six or seven eggs he claimed to have eaten for many a breakfast.

I think my altar will have to be mental this year. Instead of setting out ofrenda and decorating sugar skulls, I’m cross-stitching the tombstones on a Sleepy Hollow sampler I’ve been working on all autumn. As I embroider the headstones in various shades of gray, I think of Dad, and his sister Margaret, and of Auda, a family friend who passed away during October. Funny, I think I could create special tombstones for them out of  something like fondant, do a really first-rate job and not feel a bit uncomfortable. Again, I guess it all comes down to culture.

Next year I’ll think ahead about making and decorating candy skulls. But not ths year. Not yet.


What is my own cultural experience with All Soul’s Day? When it fell on a school day when I was a kid, we sometimes participated in a special Mass, very somber, with a cart set in the middle of the center aisle of St. Cecilia’s and covered with a purple and black cloth with a cross on it. This was to represent a coffin. It was all very funeral-like and somber. There was nothing of a celebration about it.

I think there was something about indulgences and getting souls out of purgatory as well. I remember one year going in and out of the church during lunch period with other girls in my class. We’d been told that every time someone went to church and said a certain prayer on All Soul’s Day, it freed a soul from purgatory, so we did our darndest to send as many spirits as possible to Heaven. That was more uplifting than the leaden mourning of everyone who had ever died. And maybe, just maybe, we honored some poor dead soul in a very meaningful way.


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When I was a kid, All Saints Day meant having to get up and go to church the morning after Halloween. However, we didn’t have school if it fell on a weekday, so that was the primary attraction of the holiday for me.

I was reading online about Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) last night and wondered if the actual dates of the celebration coincided with Halloween. I found that November 1 and 2 are the days of the celebration in Mexico; and that November 1 is a day for remembering departed children, while November 2 is for remembering deceased adults.

The idea of November 1 being a day of remembrance for children is new to me, and it’s much sadder than the notion of celebrating the saints, which was the purpose of All Saints Day that was taught to us at St. Cecilia’s. I guess it was supposed to be for saints who didn’t have their own feast days, but it still projected it to a higher plain than honoring the everyday people no longer in our lives, especially children. It makes my heart ache to think of the altars to children who have passed on, and to the flowers and toys and candles on their graves. I hope the rituals of November 1 are a great comfort to all those who mourn the lost children in their lives.

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I have a personal holiday tradition that I’ve been practicing for about 20 years now. I usually wind up doing it sometime between Christmas and New Year’s; I’d prefer to celebrate before Christmas, but things just never quite work out because of lack of time and preoccupation with the upcoming Yule. Also, because I did this ritual for the first time in the doldrum period between the year-end holidays, it now seems a more natural part of my season to continue to do it then (i.e., now).

I’m in love with the movie Babette’s Feast. I was enchanted with it upon first viewing when it was released to theaters back in the 80s. Later, I rented it as a video, and the love affair became permanent, with an added twist: I discovered the viewing experience was heightened by actually eating along with the feast in the last section of the movie.

Since I don’t cook, I’ve never attempted any of the dishes in the movie, or even pathetic facsimiles. I just try to have something tasty, with enough of it on the plate to last me through the on-screen meal. The key element is wine. I must have wine with the food, preferably champagne, although I’ve made it work with a variety of wines, both red and white. No, I don’t invest in an expensive label comparable to the vintages served in the movie. My palate isn’t that sophisticated. Fortunately, there are a lot of nice wines that don’t cost very much, and they serve my almost sacramental purposes.

I confess I don’t watch the entire movie each time. I like to begin at the point where the boat arrives from France with all of the ingredients for Babette’s feast, from the live quail and hissing tortoise to the casks of wine. I love to watch the preparations of the food — even the remains of the butchered cow being hauled away in a wheelbarrow, the cow’s head sitting on a platter in the kitchen, and the young boy plucking feathers from the dead quail — as well as the setting of the table in the dining room, with the tablecloth being ironed on the table and china being carefully placed at each seat.

I’ve actually performed this ritual more than once per season in various years, but the “authentic” one is usually the first viewing. I used to refer to the “authentic” viewing as my angel feast, in reference to Cafe Anglais in the film and the line “How you will delight the angels!” I always saw it as a gathering of my angels to thank them for the blessings of the preceding year. I turn off all the lights except the Christmas tree, and I light candles. (First I make sure my platter of food is warmed and ready, the wine open and poured.)

Then I simply follow along with the film, eating tiny bites at first until the feast actually gets underway. I love the guests’ arrival in the sisters’ candle-lit parlor contrasted with the hum of activity in the kitchen as Babette prepares her cailles en sarcophage: slicing open the tiny birds’ bodies to receive slices of something enticing, then closing the breasts again and positioning the birds in nests of puff pastry (with the final touch of the little bald heads put in place as well, a flourish that gives me a chill even as the notion intrigues me).

I love the expression of the guests as they first enter the dining room and see the lavish table glistening with crystal and silver, with more utensils and glasses at each place than any of them could conceive of using in a week’s time.

With the General’s first astonished sip of fine wine, I feel free to delve into my own feast for real, savoring my own delicacies, whatever they may be, as well as the cuisine Babette is serving, along with all the details I’ve learned to treasure over the years: the way the guests’ pasty, dour faces become more rosy as their spirits open; the General’s driver, who sits in the kitchen and samples helpings of the feast in exchange for doing little chores for Babette — and whose wide face marvels at the wonders Babette achieves as he watches; the General’s speech about grace and mercy and our being granted even what we rejected; and, at the end, the jarring revelation of what the feast meant to Babette both as redemption and sacrifice. Finally, her utterance of what I claim as a personal philosophy: An artist is never poor!

Needless to say, the spiritual appeal of Babette’s Feast is as dear to me as the seductive physical details. That’s why it’s become a holiday ritual for me — a feast for the soul as well as the body, just as the General describes her dinner at Cafe Anglais in Paris.

My dream is to one day actually experience a recreation of Babette’s feast (assuming I could afford it). I’d love to know what each of those courses tastes like as well as the wine. I suspect, though, that I might not be much more moved by that extravagant experience than by my many angels feasts by candlelight, with budget wine and a platter of much simpler food.

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