The Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos in Spanish, is a holiday related to All Saints Day and All Soul's Day that is celebrated throughout Mexico and in many other cultures around the world. The holiday and its merchandise are becoming increasingly more popular in the United States as Mexican communities and the culture influences society by promoting the holiday, artists, pop culture and retailers sell and embrace the marketing associated with the holiday, and as overall general awareness increases. In America, we have held a fascination for years with skull imagery and the idea of the afterlife, heaven and hell. There is also a growing trend of curiosity of paranormal activity, ghosts and spirits. We celebrate the holiday of Halloween that embrace some of this fascination. It's no surprise that as more Americans learn about The Day of the Dead, more and more are taking part in this celebration of life and death, folklore and culture.
The greatest influence of Day of the Dead in America comes from our neighbors to the South, Mexico. And whenever there is a Mexican holiday or celebration, you often find folklorico dancing. Hence the reason I am writing about this holiday. Below are some pictures from the first Day of the Dead folklorico performance I ever saw. The pictures are of Images of Mexico getting ready in 2011 for their show. Be sure to read my blog called "Images Of Mexico" to learn more of this fabulous group. The show was spectacular and there were lots of vendors selling their goods. I bought some colorful glitter skull heads, with the intent of using them as ornaments for a Day of the Dead Christmas tree, and a charcoal skeleton drawing.
The holiday takes place over two days in November on the 1 and 2. It coincides and has connections to the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day (a.k.a. All Hallows, Solemnity of All Saints, or The Feast of All Saints) and All Souls Day (a.k.a. Commemoration of All Faithful Departed). The Day of the Dead draws ideas and practices from these two Catholic holidays and combines them with cultural rituals and folklore. The holiday focuses on gatherings of families and friends to pray for and remember loved ones who have died. At its core, it is a day dedicated to remembering the dead - essentially it is a type of Memorial Day.
Traditions connected to the holiday include building private altars or shrines honoring those who have passed. Altars include a variety of elements including sugar skulls, marigold flowers, photographs and portraits of the deceased, candles, toys, bottles, the favorite food and beverages of the deceased, as well as possessions of the deceased. Most often these altars are built inside the home, however, I have seen them in community settings as well. At the grave sites of the departed, similar items are offered as gifts. Grave side visitation is typically part of the holiday.
Many of the items used in the memorial altars have significant reasons why they are used and beliefs that are associated with them. At a Day of the Dead folklorico performance last year at the Redlands Community Center, a pamphlet explaining many of these items and the folklore behind them was given to the people who came. I would like to share with you the information the flyer provided. The brochure is called "DIA DE LOS MUERTOS - DAY OF THE DEAD: A brief guide to the Mexican ritual of life and death." Note: there is no author, resource or reference printed on the document. Nonetheless, I like how it simply explains everything. Here's what it has to say:
"El Dia De Los Muertos
El Dia De Los Muertos, or Day Of The Dead, is a celebration that captures the idea of unity between life and death. It emphasizes death as part of the cycle of life. It came into being when the Catholic feast of All Souls Day, a day to remember the dead with prayer, merged with Indian rituals of death after the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1521.
El Dia De Los Muertos is celebrated on November 1st, when, it is believed, the spirits of dead relatives return to their homes. For this special occasion, altars are cleaned and decorated on October 31st to welcome the honored guests. On these altars one traditionally places zempasuchil (yellow marigolds), candles, toys, religious pictures, cut tissue paper decorations, and personal mementos as offerings to the returning soul. Other offerings include incense, cigarettes, liquor, and food such as tamales, candles, sugar skulls, and pan de muertos (bread of the dead), things the returning soul enjoyed during life.
At around 4:00 A.M. on November 1st, the spirits of the children are expected. They are expected for only a few hours and around 8:00 A.M., their departure is marked by the blowing out of tiny candles and their removal from the altar. At about 3:00 P.M. the spirits of the adults arrive and large candles are lit. It is said that the spirits will go away weeping if nothing is offered to them.
Prayers are said at the altar around 8:00 P.M. and everyone attends mass at church on the morning of November 2nd. In the evening, they will fill the cemeteries where graves of departed relatives are cleaned and decorated with zempasuchil. Once there, incense is burned and food is offered until dawn. On November 4th, the altars and decorations are removed."
In the Mexican culture, the family unit is an important core value. It is upheld, even if fellow family members have to use tactics like guilt trips and/or intimidation to keep you close to the family nest. I find it interesting that even in these family oriented holidays with their rituals, there is an element of guilt as they suggest that your deceased loved ones will be saddened if you do not participate. This kind of thinking holds families hostage to the tradition and ritual. Anyway, just an observation. Here is some additional information that the flyer provides explaining the various components of specific items. Please note: images were added by me.
The ofrenda, Spanish for "offering", is a home altar decorated for the Day of the Dead celebration to honor and please the returning souls. The altar is decorated with pictures, candles, and food such as tamales and candies as an offering to the returning soul. These are all things which the souls enjoyed in their earthly existence.
Papel Picado (Tissue-paper Cut Outs)
Tissue-paper banners with cutout designs of animated skeleton figures adorn altars and homes during El Dia De Los Muertos. The art of making these banners was similar to leather tooling. Today, half the fun is in cutting out the tissue paper with scissors and creating one's own design.
Candles, besides their religious symbolism, are placed on the ofrenda to light and guide the way of the souls to the altar.
The zempasuchil was the symbolic flower of death to the Aztecs. Perhaps this association was made because once the marigold is cut, it dies very quickly. For this reason, flowers on the ofrenda refer to the earth and the regenerative forces of nature.
Also, in some religions, marigold petals are strewn to create a symbolic pathway leading souls to the ofrenda.
Incense is burned on grave sites and on the ofrenda. Its perfumed smoke surrounds the altar and grave, providing and atmosphere of mystery. The transformation of earth matter (tree resin) into something ethereal (smoke) is a symbolic transformation of the physical to the supernatural which is associated with the death of the returning soul.
A Glass Of Water
To quench the thirst of the returning souls after their long journey, a glass of water is placed on the ofrenda. This emphasizes the fact that water is the main support of life
The calaveras (skulls) are made from sugar paste which has been pressed into ceramic molds. These skulls are decorated with flowers and scrolls of colored icing and metallic colored foils. The skulls, bearing the name of the returning soul, are used in the ofrenda but can also be given to living children as treats and exchanged by sweethearts. The consumption of the skulls by the living is done to associate pleasant sensations with their symbolic deaths and also to understand that in the end, death will feed on the living.
Pan De Muertos
Pan de Muertos is a sweet bread flavored with anise, orange peel and orange glaze specially made to be placed on ofrendas and graves. The breads are baked for both the living and the dead and come in many different animal and angel shapes. More traditional loaves are round with a central raised knob of dough, representing the skull, and crossed bone-shaped decorations radiating from the central knob.
Day Of The Dead Toys
There are a variety of toys such as painted clay skeleton figures, which portray the dead resuming their normal activities such as playing cards, that one can purchase and put on the ofrenda. Pull toys and crank boxes with similar death imagery are given to children to introduce them to the idea of death in an atmosphere of joyful celebration."
Where did this holiday come from? Wikipedia provides this insight as to the origins of the holiday,
"Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world: In Brazil, Dia de Finadosis is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in Asian and African cultures."
As far as observance in Mexico and origins, Wikipedia offer this explanation:
"The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the precolumbian past. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500 - 3,000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the "Lady of the Dead", corresponding to the modern Catrina [see explanation below].
In most regions of Mexico, November 1 is to honor children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as Dia de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") but also as Dia de los Angelitos ("Day of the little Angels") and November 2 as Dia de los Muertos or Dia de los Difuntos ("Day of the Dead")."
Here is the explanation and description Wikipedia gives of La Calavera Catrina:
"La Calavera Catrina ('Dapper Skeleton', 'Elegant Skull') is a 1910-1913 zinc etching by famous Mexican print maker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada. The image depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her chapeau originally is related to French and European styles of the early 20th century. She is meant to portray a satirization of those Mexican natives who Posada felt were over embracing European traditions of the aristocracy in the pre-revoluntionary era. She in particular, has become an icon of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead."
J.G. Posada himself stated this about La Catrina:
"La Catrina has become the referential image of death in Mexico, it is common to see her embodied as part of celebrations of Day of the Dead throughout the country; she has become a motive for the creation of handcrafts made from clay or other materials, her representations may vary, as well as the hat."
Of course, it is only fitting that her name is Catrina. In Spanish the masculine is "El Catrin" which is a distinguished upper class dapper gentleman. You may be familiar with him from the popular Mexican game Loteria. The two make a most suitable couple - Catrina y Catrin! A love story. Here are some images of the two.
As The Day of the Dead holiday has grown in popularity, propaganda and merchandise related to the holiday has evolved and diversified. You can visit almost any Mexican shop these days and find an array of skeleton portrayals. Sugar skulls has evolved into a huge assortment of porcelain or ceramic figurines and La Catrina figurines have also grown in abundance and variety. These days you can find pretty much any aspect of the Mexican culture in skeleton form.
****ATTENTION ALL BIG WEDO FANS & FOLLOWERS: MARK YOUR CALENDARS - SEPTEMBER 29, 2013 - HERENCIA MEXICANA WILL BE PERFORMING AT THE LA COUNTY FAIR. THIS IS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR THOSE OF YOU IN THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AREA TO COME OUT AND SHOW YOUR SUPPORT! MEET THE WEDO! LET'S PACK THE PLAZA AND SET RECORD ATTENDANCE FOR THE SHOW! HOPE TO SEE EVERYONE THERE. MORE DETAILS TO COME AS THE EVENT GETS CLOSER!****
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