November 2, 2013
Dia De Los Muertos
That distinctly American version of the harvest festival, Halloween, is over and gone. Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween. The candy sends my sugar levels soaring, the costumes and parties are a blast. I love the dark humor and the un-self conscious drama of it all.
But my favorite part of this time of year happens on November 1st and 2nd. El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated around the world these days – in countries such as Guatemala, Brazil, Spain, and Mexican-American communities in the US, but it started in Mexico as a way to honor the loved ones who have passed on. In Mexico, it is a national holiday and the largest celebration they have all year.
November 1st and 2nd are also Catholic celebrations – All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Day of the Dead, is also divided. November 1, known as Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), is reserved to honor deceased children. November 2 is for adults who have passed on. International Business Times reports that some cultures even incorporate October 31, All Hallows Eve, as a night when the souls of young children arise at midnight.
It sounds like this is a somber and maybe morbid event. Far from it. Families build offrendas, or alters, to honor their dead. These alters are covered with pictures of the relatives, chocolates, marigolds (which signify death in Mexican culture) sweet breads, trinkets and (my favorite) sugar skulls.
Have you seen sugar skulls? They are exquisite. Molded skulls made from sugar, elaborately decorated with icing. They are not morbid, they are fabulously bright and festive. There are also small sugar coffins and other confections.
The families also visit the cemetery to pay their respects. They deliver their offerings, hold vigils with candles and photos, maintain the graves, and sometimes even hold picnics or cookouts.
The origins of this celebration are routed in Aztec culture. The Aztecs celebrated with a festival for the goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. This celebration was combined with the Catholic feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’.
The poster child, if you will, of the Day of the Dead is La Catrina – the Mexican Lady of the Dead. She is recognized as a skeleton woman wearing a fancy hat. Legend has it that La Catrina was a selfish, greedy rich woman who did nothing to help the poor. Dressing as La Catrina by dressing in fancy garb and painting themselves to look like a skeleton is not to honor her, but to mock her selfishness.
The reason this is my favorite fall festival is because of the hope and happiness involved in it. Most fall festivals, even in our current renditions of them, are about the end of the harvest, the dying of the natural world, or summer’s end. This festival, even though it is centered around the dead, is a celebration of the lives of those we love, not a mourning.
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