First Debauchery, Then Austerity
By Rosamaria Casas
During Carnival, people can become something different, and with regional variations, devils, cavaliers, ladies of high fashion, flamenco or ballet dancers, princesses or simply a good cloak and dagger or sword, give life to fantasies. Veracruz is one of the cities where some of the most boisterous carnivals take place. The mainly male comparsas or groups of men dancing, singing and merry-making in the streets have become famous.
The populace makes innocent fun of them and their comparsas are not only tolerated, but encouraged and enjoyed by everyone. Other comparsas often go inside people’s gardens asking for treats and money, or just to have a good time, eat and drink to their heart’s content.
The purpose of the Carnival is to do away with sadness and bad humor. The townsfolk bury these in a symbolic ceremony and then everyone is happy. Children also have a good time; hidden behind their masks, they can act mischievously without danger of being immediately punished. It is time for merry-making, to dance in the streets, to do what nobody would dare to do openly. Nothing serious, mind you, but you may approach your boss to tease him, or kiss the girl or boy you love without risking the danger of vengeance or rejection.
After all this debauchery comes Ash Wednesday and the period of forty days of austerity begins. On Ash Wednesday, you can see practicing Catholics going to church to be reminded that after death bodies will turn to ashes, even if they are not cremated. During this ancient religious ceremony, the priest makes a cross on the person’s forehead pronouncing the words, “Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return.” Then the prayers start, saying that the dress shall be discarded in order to wear a tunic of rough material and the head will be covered with ashes, to ask God forgiveness and mercy.
The anointment with ashes is a rite which dates almost to the beginning of the church, once the liturgy was given a concrete, universal form. That Lent happens during the dry season and the populace does not have to work in the fields makes Lent not only a time for abstinence and fasting, but also for festivities. After all, there is a saint to be commemorated every day of the year and every single town has a patron saint and forty days is a long time.
One of the most colorful in the country takes place in an old Aztec town, Amecameca, at the end of the slope of the volcanoes Popocatepétl and Ixtazíhuatl. After the Ash Wednesday ceremony, attended by great numbers of people from neighboring villages, all go to visit the statue of Señor del Sacromonte (Lord of the Sacred Hill). Here religious ceremonies take place, and afterwards people go to the tianguis, one of the largest and most lavish organized in the area by the Aztecs and Otomí Indians who live in surrounding areas.
Another very important fiesta takes place the last Friday of Lent. This Friday is called Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows) commemorating the pain and suffering of Mary, the mother of Christ, whose heart was broken when she saw her son flogged and crucified. All the mothers go to pray to their favorite image of the Mother of God, asking for health and safety for their children. Those are only a few examples of what goes on all during Carnival and Lent in Mexico. Every town in the country has its ceremonies and festivities in a different style.