Mexican popular culture and Mexican folk art continue to attract interest throughout the world. The traditions in Mexico are so rich and so often changing that they provide a seemingly endless array of topics to intrigue the visitor—from passing tourist to serious scholar. The activities around the Day of the Dead, from October 31 to November 2, are currently under close inspection.

The Skeleton at the Feast is a handsome addition to the recent literature on this Mexican phenomenon. The authors went to Mexico to research the topic but also to prepare an exhibition for the British Museum. This book is the catalog for the exhibit, and much more. The photographs are magnificent and would merit a place on practically anyone’s coffee table. Yet the photos themselves are so uniquely Mexican that the book will also be read to try to understand the meanings of the remarkable apparitions pictured. Carmichael and Sayer present an overview of the Day of the Dead from its pre-Columbian origins to current practices in some U.S. Mexican American communities. This is not a chronological narrative, however, and the emphasis jumps quickly from the early background to the present. In describing contemporary practices The Skeleton at the Feast makes its greatest contribution.

Approximately half the text is devoted to interviews on various aspects of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Most of the interviewees are skilled artisans involved in the celebrations—altar builders, paper banner and sugar-candy skull makers— or experts on these practices. Their recollections of past practices as well as descriptions of current ways of honoring the dead are invaluable. Four of the ten people interviewed come from Puebla, city or state; two are in Toluca; two are identified with Mexico City; and two are Totonacs from around El Tajín in Veracruz. Most of the other research was done in Veracruz and Puebla. Scant attention is paid to the areas usually most associated with the Día de los Muertos—the state of Oaxaca and the region around Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán. This is both a strength and a weakness. It enables the informed reader to have a much fuller appreciation of the significance of these observances to Mexicans of highly varied backgrounds, but it slights two vital regions.

Still, this volume makes a valuable contribution to the study of both Mexican popular culture and the folk art it has produced. It may also be timely, as one of the interviewees laments the way U.S. Halloween customs are supplanting some of the traditional celebrations in urban centers such as Monterrey and the Federal District. The experience of Santa Claus versus the Reyes Magos does not favor tradition.