One of my biggest regrets is not taking advantage of the opportunity to celebrate the Day of the Dead when I was living in Mexico. I didn’t understand what a cultural and spiritual treasure this celebration is, so I skipped it. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to go back to have this experience, but something keeps getting in my way.
Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition that reaches back thousands of years, to an Aztec celebration called Xantolo, which used to last for an entire month. It is a time when the dead and the living interact. Basically, it gives you a chance to spend time with the dearly departed.
This concept most likely makes the average American very uncomfortable. We don’t like to acknowledge death. We struggle to come up with things to say to people who have lost loved ones. We spend a lot of time trying to achieve immortality, even though death comes to us all sooner or later. It is the great equalizer.
The result of this puritanical, squeamish attitude toward a natural, inevitable conclusion to life means that grieving in America can be even more difficult than it needs to be. People tend to avoid you. It’s as if death is contagious. No one wants to hear about it. Mourning in this country is a very isolating experience. We prefer that the dead rest in peace. In other words, “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.”
One of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, described Xantolo in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle like this:
“I’m drawn to this celebration, I’m sure, because I live in a culture that allows almost no room for dead people. I celebrated Dia de los Muertos in the homes of friends from a different background, with their deceased relatives, for years before I caught on. But I think I understand now. When I cultivate my garden I’m spending time with my grandfather, sometimes recalling deeply buried memories of him, decades after his death. While shaking beans from an envelope I have been overwhelmed by a vision of my Pappaw’s speckled beans and flat corn seeds in peanut butter jars in his garage, lined up in rows, curated as carefully as a museum collection. That’s Xantolo, a memory space opened before my eyes, which has no name in my language.”
I think Xantolo is a very healthy way to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. They may be gone, but they still have an impact on your life. Their absence changes who you are. That ability to effect change, to have an impact, is life of a sort. So why not acknowledge it?
You’re probably wondering why I’m writing about Xantolo in January. It’s because I celebrate Xantolo all year round. When I look skyward and say, “Yeah, I feel you. I know you’re close,” that’s Xantolo. It’s also the butterfly that lands on my knee, and the remembered joke that still makes me laugh. It’s that smell that brings me back to that particular day, or that song that I can still hear you singing.
Xantolo is the ongoing relationship that I have with people I can no longer reach out and touch. As with other relationships, sometimes it’s welcome, sometimes not. But I get a great deal of comfort from the fact that these people that I loved and still love are never very far away. We may have no name for that in our language, but oh, it’s there.
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