Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Day of the Dead

I've talked about All Hollows Eve and All Saints Day quite a bit in my Halloween post, but I've never mentioned the holiday that is basically those two wrapped into one sugar skull: Dia De Los Muertos, also known as the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead is celebrated every year on November 1st, corresponding with All Saints Day, and is primarily celebrated in Mexico. When people call this "Mexican Halloween," they are incorrect, as Mexicans, and others who celebrate the Day of the Dead, do take part in Halloween as well. The holiday focuses on the gathering of families and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. Sounds a little bit like the early celebrations of All Saints Day, right? Well it's a little different. Let me start off with the holidays origin.

Like Halloween, the Day of the Dead can be traced back to pagan beliefs. Like their European counterparts,  the indigenous culture had rituals honoring their ancestors. The difference is that in present day Latin America, they had a fixation with human remains. Skulls to be exact. The skulls of family members were kept as trophies and displayed during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The festival, according to the Aztec calender, kicked off in early August and lasted throughout the month. The festivities were also dedicated to the "Lady of the Dead," a goddess that corresponds with the modern Catrina. La Calvera Catrina (The Elegant Skull) was a 1910 etching by Jose Guadalupe Posada. It has become a staple image for the holiday, much like the Jack-O-Lantern for Halloween, or Santa Claus for Christmas.

In the modern day, the populace still celebrates their dead, but they don't carry around the skulls of their ancestors. Well, hopefully nobody does. The day is still very personal though. People go to their relative's grave-sites, clean them up a few days before November 1st, and when the day comes, they visit again bringing the deceased favorite things, like food and beverages, and even build private altars. People have also been known to bring photos of the person they are mourning, or memorabilia that belonged to them. This is all to encourage that relative's soul to visit you and you can have your time with them. It's all about honoring their dead and remembering them. I just don't feel like we have the same connection in our culture. How many of us go out of our way to visit our relative's graves and just chat with them for awhile, remembering them and maybe leaving them a few flowers? I may be wrong, but I think our culture is too busy for that sort of thing anymore.

Anyway, another tradition of the day is bringing an offering of some sort to your relative, which often includes orange Mexican marigolds called cempasuchil. The name is sometimes replaced with Flor de Muerto, which means Flower of the Dead. The flowers are thought to attract the souls to the offering. The offerings vary depending on what age the dead relative is. If it is a dead child, then you would leave them an offering of toys. If it is an adult, however, you would leave, what else? Alcohol! Offerings are also left outside the home and range from candy skulls, which is one of the more popular offerings, to alcohol and spiced pumpkin. People believe that the souls eat the essence of these food and drink offerings, so that when we as humans consume the products afterwards, they hold no nutritional value. That makes...sense? Pillows and blankets are also left out so the spirits can rest from their long journey. Families will even go as far as camping out at their relative's gravestone all night. Altars are not just made inside the home or at graveyards, but are such a part of Mexican heritage that classrooms on all levels build their own altars and leave offerings for the dead, the same going for government buildings, though they are usually smaller. While some would put the holy cross or a picture of the Virgin Mary in their altars at home, it is not done at schools or places of work.

Skulls are by far the most common symbol attributed to the holiday. People wear skull masks called calacas and make skulls out of sugar or chocolate. The sugar skulls have their recipients name etched in the back and are given to both the living and the dead. I remember our Spanish Club selling skull lollipops during this day and I'm guessing this was the closest they could come to a skull made out of sugar. Catrina is also a huge part of the day, as people put pictures up of her everywhere. The Day of the Dead is in no way universally celebrated the same way. That goes for inside of Mexico also, as many towns have different customs and some traditions have been dropped altogether. In cities especially, and in certain parts of Mexico, many of the traditions have faded away and instead have been replaced by a Halloween tradition: Trick-or-Treating. Kids dress up and go around asking for treats or money, even asking people passing them on the street. Sounds basically like a more intense version of our Halloween tradition.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in many other areas of the world, mostly ones with large Catholic populations, as The Day of the Dead is basically part of the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The tradition of leaving flowers and gifts at graves once a year is in no way specific to just the Mexican culture and those of the Catholic faith. Many other cultures honor their dead in a similar fashion and take time to remember their ancestors. America also celebrates the Day of the Dead, but it's mostly done in states with high concentrations of people from Latin American countries. Like I have said before, I think that we need to make this a part of our culture in some way. I just feel like we need to take the time to honor those who came before us and those that meant a lot to us while they were alive. So, even if you aren't from a country that celebrates the Day of the Dead, take some time out of your day to remember someone you lost. Also, take time to eat some candy skulls, because that sounds delicious.

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