Sunday, November 02, 2014

Bread And Anniversaries: Day of the Dead

There is, to say the least, a bit of confusion when it comes to the Day of the Dead. You will find reference to it being All Saints' Day, which was yesterday. It isn't. It is today, All Souls' Day.

The three days of Allhallowtide, from a religious perspective, do not all come from pagan origins. Only Halloween does. 1 November, where the Celts were concerned, marked Samhain, the start of the Celtic winter (Samhain - the lord of death - meant summer's end). So, the eve of Samhain became the time for sacrifice and for allowing the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes, the connection having been made between the death of summer and human death. With the coming of Christianity, Halloween continued but it was only to become All Saints' Eve once the idea of All Saints' Day first took hold (probably some time in the fourth century) and, very much more importantly, was shifted from May, when it had originally been celebrated, to 1 November, which wasn't finally and definitively decided upon until the eleventh century.

So, All Saints' Day was a Christian invention and not a pagan one. And the same applies to All Souls' Day. There had been a celebration for the souls of the dead who had been condemned to Purgatory from at least the sixth century. It had also occurred in the spring, at Whitsun time. In line with All Saints' Day, 2 November was officially adopted in the eleventh century.

The term, the Day of the Dead, was probably used much earlier, but there is a strong claim for it having been first officially referred to in Barcelona as late as 1671. A document from the city's silversmiths' guild makes explicit mention of "Diada dels Morts", and just as explicitly, it was referring to All Souls' Day. Therefore, Catalan can put a bid in for having come up with the Day of the Dead.

That same document also spoke about the offerings of "pa dels morts" (bread of the dead) being made to the deceased. The business with the bread had been around for some time before the Barcelona guild was issuing its instructions in the seventeenth century, and Mallorca provides the evidence. A will of 1344 stated that heirs should place bread on the tomb on the Day of the Deceased (aka All Souls' Day). As I say, the Day of the Dead was in all likelihood in general use prior to 1671, as it was a simple enough leap to change deceased to dead. (The Día de Difuntos - deceased or departed - is still also widely used.)

The association of bread with All Souls' Day was clearly already a custom by the time that will was drawn up and it continued to be a custom but with the bread morphing into something sweeter. In Mallorca, "panetets de mort" (small dead breads if you like) have become rosaries of sweets for children and typically nowadays they include marzipan, fruit candies and chocolate coins. They are something for any of the three days of Allhallowtide, but strictly speaking, because of the origins of the offerings of bread, they should be for All Souls' Day. As these panetets, certainly by the early years of the last century, were being strung like beads and thus needed to have a hole, I am guessing that this is partly the explanation why "bunyols" (doughnuts or fritters with a hole) are so much a part of the current-day customs of Allhallowtide.

There will, naturally enough, be masses held today for All Souls' Day, and one will be at the cathedral in Palma. Among its many stories, the cathedral has one about the Day of the Dead and King Jaume II. He died on 28 May, 1311. Jaume had the good sense to arrange for two options for where he should be interred, depending on where he happened to be when he passed away. One was in Perpignan, the other was the cathedral. But as things turned out, a tomb fit for a king wasn't ready for him and nor was the chapel - Trinity; it was to take eighteen years for it to be ready. Why that chapel is where it is has always been something of a mystery, but it was probably to do with the monarchy not forming part of the cathedral's liturgy, i.e. the pattern of worship. But the tomb was to acquire a role in this liturgy. In the fifteenth century, the royal procurator agreed to a payment to be made to the cathedral, but one of the conditions was that there had to be a mass in front of the royal tomb. Another was that this payment was for a royal anniversary. Jaume II's. And the anniversary would be on the Day of the Dead. Hence, Jaume, having been born and having died in May, ended up with a "day" that was for the dead.

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