October 30, 2004

All Saints Day (Todos Santos)

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Continuing with my habit of telling my readers about Bolivian traditions, today I will tell you about another tradition: Todos Santos or All Saints Day.

This tradition is historically interesting, it comes from the mixture between western religion and pagan customs. As we know, Catholicism has a long tradition of adopting pagan customs in order to expand the appeal of christianism towards the natives of every region. However, I thought I'd spare you the history and instead I tell you about the tradition itself and about how my family experienced it.

It always started early in the morning, November 2. That was when I used to see my mom preparing the table. But, before I tell you about the table, let me tell you a little about the meaning. Todos Santos is the day the souls of all the deceased family members come back to us to visit. They are supposed to stay 24 hours. I know, it sounds a bit ridiculous since everyone knows the dead don't have a whatch :-) At least not one that works. The doors of the beyond are supposed to open for that period of time. I guess that is where the 24 hours come in. But, stay with me. It is for that reason that the table is needed. It was a kind of a make-shift altar.

Our table was very discreet or so my mom wanted it to be. She used to place a black table cloth over a small table. The central spot would always be taken by the pictures of my grand mother and grand father. These I assume, would represent all the dead family members. Luckly, at that time, we did not have many souls which would pay us a visit. Most of the family members were still alive, with the exception of my mom's parents. But, that is another story. She would place the portraits in the center of the table. At both sides of the photos, and towards the front corners, she would place two white candles. Inmediately behind them, she would place two vases with flowers. I forget what kind of flowers, but they always looked pretty to me. Usually, they would be of a kind we had outside on the patio. They were arranged neatly and with gusto. Now, here is the important stuff. The tradition was to place some type of pastries and a glass of water for the peculiar visitors. So my mom, being a pastry chef, would bake some pastries herself and a special kind of cake called Bizcochuelo, for which I don't have a translation. It was delicious, you can take my word for it.

Once everything was in place, we would all kneel and say a silence prayer in the name of our potential visitors.

If anyone ever came, I would never know. Although, this idea made and impression on me, so I would ask my mom if she had ever seen one of them. She would quietly shine a smile at me and would caress my head. She would assure me if anyone came, they would not do anything bad and so I should not be afraid. She always did know how to make me feel good. I cannot say I have ever seen anything out of the ordinary, and I kept watch, you know. The only thing that would keep me in doubt was the fact that the glass of water always seemed to empty a little. This drove me nuts, until later when I was older, much older, I figured it out.

This is a tradition which, at least to me, taught me to respect and not to be afraid of the dead or of death. I don't know if it had any other effects on me, to this day I cannot say otherwise. But, the fact we had such a tradition was strangely peace inducing.

This was a well known tradition among my circle of friends. I remember everyone would know what day it was. Everyone of my friends felt weird. I guess that was because we did not understand it. Not, that the grown ups understood it either, but at least they believed in it. However, Todos Santos just wasn't like Halloween, if you know what I mean. It was more like a very quiet holiday to spend few moments together with your family thinking about those already departed and perhaps, to some, also a chance to think on his/her own mortality. I know that was the case for me.

As for the pagan traditions, in La Paz, we were influenced by the Aymara. The Aymara tradition says that in this day, all the dead come to visit from the place where they dwell among all the ancestors and nature gods like Pachamama (mother earth). This is the day when the doors of wherever is they dwell, open and the souls come out to the real world. Interstingly, this was also a belief within the Druids.

Here is a link to a site where they have a nice report on this custom. Unfortunately, it is only in Spanish. So, for those of you who can read Spanish, enjoy it. For those readers who don't speak Spanish, I would suggest a visit anyway, they have a really interesting photo section. They are very interesting. And remember, don't hesitate on asking any questions on the comment section. I will attempt to answer them. :-)

For those of you who can only speak English, here is an article in English.