Mexico: The Harvest Ceremony

Corn is inextricably tied to the quotidian lives of the peasants and indigenous people of Mexico. As the basic grain, it shapes daily meals, and it’s growing cycle influences the timing of ritual and celebration. We look at the harvest ceremony.

The harvest ceremony is celebrated in October or November. The ritual begins inside the house and in the yard where the altar and arches are decorated with flowers and corncobs. The key participants on this occasion are two rezanderos and their wives; the person in charge of the tlamanal, which is the bundle made from corncobs that gives the ritual its name; the hachero; the music trio or trios; the abuelita or ‘grandmother’, who is the elderly woman who leads the women’s activities and takes care of the dresses for the corn doll that is made following the harvest; and the boy and girl who will ‘dance for the corn’.

At the beginning of the ceremony, the host shares a drink of cane liquor with the participants, after offering it to the four cardinal directions, along with a meal of bean tamales. This is because, as one host stressed, “sharing food is part of the ritual”. All the elements to be used in the ceremony are blessed before the altar – the copal incense, firecrackers, tobacco, liquor, patlaches, rope, a mecapal, which is a long cord with a wide leather strap worn across the forehead, used to carry loads, wingaros (sickles), ayates (cloth woven from maguey fiber), candles, dresses, a bandanna for the corn doll, a cross made from corncobs known as the elocruz, flowers and embroidered napkins. Canario music is considered to be a prayer and part of the offering. The ceremony opens with the first prayers, toasts, music and an offering of liquor to the land. The men leave for the cornfield amid the popping of firecrackers. The journey becomes a kind of pilgrimage, carried out in silence or quiet conversation.

Once they reach the field, some of the men clear a patch of ground and surround it with stones placed in a semicircle. In the center, a small altar is set up and the offering is placed on it. Meanwhile, the other men harvest the first corn. Another offering of liquor is initiated, accompanied by firecrackers and music. The prayers begin again to emphasize the importance of this ritual and to thank the Lords of the Earth for the harvest, as well as everyone present for participating in the ceremony.

The ‘gifts’ – liquor, candles, incense, music and food – are another way of thanking them. The person in charge of the tlamanal asks for strength and health. Then the participants shake hands and wish each other peace, and smoke pipes or cigarettes. The most solemn moment in the ceremony is the blessing of the food, the Lords – whose space is at the heart of the cornfield – receive the tamale containing the chicken heart from the rezandero.

After the offering, the men begin picking the corn. Some of the ears are placed around the altar, reiterating the semicircular form created by the stones. This is followed by a meal of patlache tamales. The whole ritual is accompanied by the singing of canarios. A musician from Chilocuil pointed out that the name of this musical genre may be attributed to the beauty of the canary’s song and to the fact that it is the first bird to sing in the morning. After setting up the altar on ayate cloth or sacks, some corncobs with part of the stalk still attached are bundled together and tied with rope and the mecapal – over which incense has been wafted – to form the tlamanal, whose key significance appears to be abundance.

Before returning to the house, a final prayer is said, the attendees wish each other peace and firecrackers are set off to announce their return with the day’s harvest. The journey is carried out in a festive atmosphere – the participants are jubilant to be bearing home the fruits of their labor. The tlamanero, generally the godfather of the cornfield owner’s children, carries the tlamanal with the help of the mecapal. The music trios take turns playing canarios as they walk. The children help by carrying bouquets of corncobs, and the men carry ayate cloths full of corn.

When they near the house, the women go out to meet them carrying lit candles. Some toss marigold petals over the corn and the men to demonstrate their joy at the harvest. Back inside the house, the rezandero offers thanks, and two separate venues are established – the men in the yard with the musicians and guests from the community, and the principal women inside the house making the doll, called piloxanconetzi. Sitting in a semicircle before the corn and the household altar, they remove the silk from the ears and gather it into piles. Two ears are tied together to form the body. The grandmother first dresses the doll in underwear or a lace petticoat. Then it is dressed in two other garments and antique ribbons. Finally, it is given a veil. The corn silk is used to make a wig. Outside the house, the men gather around the Tlamanes offering to prepare the elocruz. They make a bundle of corncobs and shape it with the sickle.

They tie it together with a local plant fiber called isote. They decorate the cross with a bandanna tied into a diamond shape and a chain of marigolds known as xochicozcatl. Once finished, incense is wafted over both symbols, and candles and liquor are set beside them. Music and prayers are offered. At this point, the corn undergoes a symbolic transformation: the ears become divinities that must be honored. The doll is dedicated to the Virgin, Mother of God, and the cross represents Jesus Christ.

With these two objects in hand, the chosen boy and girl must perform the ‘corn dance’ to the rhythm of the sones Xocihipitzahuac (Little Flower), El Canario and El Chiconcanario before the harvested corn can enter the house. The children dance facing each other, standing on a petate (woven palm mat) beneath the archway. Each child carries a candle in one hand, and in the other, the doll and the cross respectively. Other dance sequences where the men face off against each other are also performed. Then they all go inside the house where they will ‘dance for the corn’ four more times throughout the night.

After the dance, people gather around the stack of corncobs to enjoy a meal of adobo chili sauce with ground corn. They watch over the corn throughout the night. Seven ears of corn are placed at the entrance to the house, seven more in the kitchen, and incense is wafted over them. This is meant to bring good fortune and to ensure that food will never be wanting in the house. In the morning, the tlamanal is taken apart and all the corn is shucked. Then the cornhusks are taken to the backyard where a small altar is set up. More prayers are said and music is played. This moment completes the circle, returning to the land that which it has provided. Back inside the house, a short prayer is said and the host bids farewell to his guests, thanking them for their attendance and their help in the ceremony.

Then he distributes the chickens that had been sitting on the altar and gives seven ears of corn to each person. This ritual lasts for about thirty-six hours. Seven days later, the key participants gather to take down the altar. This marks the close of an agricultural cycle that provides the staple food in these communities. So it is not unusual to hear them say things like, “Corn is our strength”, or “Corn is our blood”, or even, “Corn is our father”.

– S.M.

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