All Saints Day is a religious feast. In the Roman Catholic calendar, it falls on the 1st of November. Since Latin America has been one of the most Catholic regions since the conquest, that’s when they celebrate it too. Technically speaking, it is a three-day celebration: All Hallow’s Eve falls on 31st October; All Saints on the 1st November; and All Souls on 2nd November. In English, members of Western churches refer to these three celebrations as “Allhallowtide.” For brevity’s sake, we’ll call them All Saints, or Todos Santos in Spanish.
The particular Christianites of many European countries mark this occasion by baking different kinds of bread. In Latin America, it’s a considerably more elaborate affair. There’s a heavy emphasis on the commemoration of ancestors. From the Rio Grande to Ushuaia, families decamp for the cemetery to place flowers on the graves of their relatives. There are variations in style and intensity depending on the country:
Mexicans, for example, construct small sitting rooms that are attached directly to graves, creating a little building that they can spend time in. They bring the favorite food and drinks of the departed, play their favorite music, and pass the day in the cemetery socialising with the souls of the departed.
Celebrations in Mexico are also marked with the orange petals of the cempasúchil, or Mexican marigold. They’re an artifact of the religious landscape that existed in Mesoamerica before Columbus: holdovers from the ancient cult of the dead.
Wherever there are significant indigenous populations, the Catholicism that’s practiced today is syncretic: it incorporates elements of traditional belief systems. Old gods are remixed as Catholic saints. Their observances are joined to liturgical feasts. Traditions that Rome couldn’t stamp out were absorbed and reconfigured. Take Todos Santos Cuchumatán, in the Guatemalan highland department of Huehuetenango: celebrations of the town’s namesake are tied to pre-Colombian rituals marking the end of the wet season and a petition for good rain come the next. The Mam Maya there dress in their finest livery, drink cane liquor for 48 hours, and participate in a bawdy, mortally perilous bareback horse race down a narrow dirt track while drunk to the point of passing out.
This isn’t strictly a religious celebration. The Skatch Koyl is said to commemorate a rebellion against the Spanish. Horses were, in the wake of the conquest, a new and powerful technology: Todos Santeros were forbidden to ride them. As the story goes, a group of young men decided to anyways, absconding with several -- the 16th century equivalent of stealing a police car, punishable by death. The race echoes their uprising; so, too, does the drinking, attended to despite a local dry law as if it were the last day of the celebrant’s lives.
At the other end of the highlands, in and around the town of Sumpango, All Saints is marked by the flying of huge kites many meters across.
The explanation of this is also apocryphal, although somewhat more straightforward: the kites are a way of reaching out to the dead. Made from colourful tissue paper and bamboo, these barilletes aren’t just freighted with implicit meaning: they also carry messages of all sorts. Sometimes, they’re emblazoned in huge letters, calling attention to some social or political issue. They can also be intimate, occasionally secret, in the form of a heartfelt letter to those past, enclosed along the string and lofted into the air.
The most Guatemalan All Saints Day tradition, however, is maybe the one that’s hardest to explain. That would be fiambre. It is a completely singular dish: cold cuts and pickled vegetables, often dyed red with beet juice, comprising dozens of ingredients.
Each fiambre is particular: no two households use the same recipe. It is unlike anything this author has eaten in any country. You owe it to yourself to try it!
Experience All Saints Day in Latin America
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