It is that time of year again - leaves are falling, there is a crispness in the air that wasn't there a month ago, pumpkins start making an appearance on porches, and soon there will be snow on the ground. It's fall! Oh wait, that's Fall if you live in areas that have four distinct seasons. If you live in Southern Arizona, the weather has gotten a bit cooler, but there aren't too many leaves that change color and there won't be snow on the ground anytime soon. There is, however, a site that you don't see everywhere else in the country. The closer you get to Mexico, the more you will see sugar skulls and other elements of a holiday known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. You may be thinking, 'Day of the Dead - Isn't that just Mexican Halloween?' The answer is no. In this blog post we will explore what Day of the Dead is, where it originated, and how it's celebrated today.
The first thing to know about Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos is that it is not Mexican Halloween. It is a holiday that is celebrated throughout Latin America and into the United States. It has origins in Aztec traditions and Catholicism. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are observed in Catholicism, which was brought by the Spanish to Meso-America. The Aztec had a summer holiday that celebrated their ancestors and loved ones and the Goddess of Death. Eventually, the two traditions merged and Dia de los Muertos is now celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. This is obviously close to the American holiday of Halloween, which is why many people associate them as being one holiday. At its core, Day of the Dead is for honoring family members who have passed away and celebrating their lives. Many believe that the spirits of loved ones and family ancestors can come visit living family members starting at midnight of October 31 till November 2.
At first glance, Day of the Dead may seem like just a lot of skeletons, but in fact, there is much vocabulary to learn to truly understand the intricacies of the holiday. Here are a few key terms you should know.
Calacas & Calaveras
Skulls, knowns as calacas, and skeleton,s known as calaveras, are common sights during Dia de los Muertos. The sugar skull is probably the most well-known symbol of this holiday because families used to make candy skull offerings out of sugar, now they can be made of chocolate or into decorated cookies. They are skulls with brightly colored decorations. People will also paint their faces to look like skulls and put flowers in their hair. Skeleton decorations and figurines are a common thing to see around Mexico and Latin America during the holiday and throughout the year.
Around 1910, an artist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada did a zinc etching skeleton woman dressed only in her fancy hat. The print was known as La Calavera Catrina or the Elegant Skeleton. Posada meant the print as social commentary on the fact that no matter how much money one has, everyone still dies. In the 1940's Diego Rivera featured an elegant skeleton woman in his mural, 'Sueno de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central.' Rivera gave the skeleton a much more detailed dress and was also making social commentary on death being the great equalizer of men. Many women will dress as a 'Catrina' on Day of the Dead; costumes can range from simple to the extravagant, but all are amazing when paired with the skull make up on the their faces. The Aztec celebration of Day of the Dead honored the Goddess of Death, Mictecacihuati, so death portrayed as a woman is not a new image in Mexican culture.
Besides the skulls and skeletons, the biggest and most important part of Day of the Dead is remembering and honoring your loved ones who are no longer alive. Families have altars where they put up pictures and put offerings or ofrendas to their family members so they will always be remembered. Families will clean up the loved ones' gravesites and then put out food (remember those sugar skulls) or items their loved ones enjoyed
when they were alive. They decorate with flowers, mainly marigolds, and will tell stories and reminisce on the good times had with their families.
There it is - your quick lesson on Dia de los Muertos. A fascinating holiday and tradition to be sure. The skeletons and skulls may seem dark and macabre for some, but when truly investigated, this holiday is all about remembering and honoring your loved ones. Death comes for us all, so why not celebrate those that have passed and acknowledge death instead of hiding from it.
By Cameron Vines