The Day of the Dead / Dia De los Muertos (Nov. 1-2)

Posted: October 27, 2008 by jmsulli2 in Misc.
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For those searching for new and original Halloween ideas this year, the road less traveled may lead to Mexico, where at the end of October they celebrate The Day of the Dead.  The Day of the Dead is one of the fastest growing holidays in America today, perhaps because it bookends so perfectly with Halloween.  Like Halloween, The Day of the Dead has come to be associated with parties, parades, and revelers who walk the streets dressed as the dead and undead; yet morbid name aside, The Day of the Dead has a rich and colorful history all it’s own, one which has just as much to do with the life that awaits us in the next world as it does the end of this one.

A ritual dating back over 3,000 years, The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos, in Spanish) was a Latin American holiday devoted to death and rebirth, and the transition between the temporal and the spiritual world.  For ancient indigenous Mesoamericans, death was seen not as something fearful or as simply the end of life but as a transitory journey through space and time, and a natural part of the life cycle.

Originally celebrated on the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar, roughly equivalent to the beginning of August, and lasting for over a month, The Day of the Dead focused mainly on celebrating dead ancestors.  Half of the festival was spent honoring children who had died, the other half devoted to adults who had passed on.  The deity presiding over the celebration was called Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead”, a goddess believed to have died at birth.  Some of the earliest traditions from the original festival which survive today include the prominent display of skulls as well as the creation of bread in the form of the dead.  Central to this celebration is the belief that during this time, the dead return to visit their living friends and relatives.

When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 15th Century, the ritual was denounced as pagan and promptly banned.  However, being unable to fully eradicate its practice, the Spanish later opted to appropriate it into their own religion, moving the ritual to coincide with two Catholic holy days occurring on Nov 1st and 2nd, All Saints Day and All Souls Day.   Today the festival lives on despite its appropriation by the church, and retains its unique spiritual and other-worldly elements.

In Mexico the Day of the Dead is celebrated many different ways, depending upon the location.  In some areas it is celebrated by parading an urn through villages in which prayers are written down and deposited inside.  In rural areas it is celebrated with visitations to cemeteries, where picnics are held and gravestones are decorated with skulls, marigold flowers and candles.  In the cities people celebrate it through the creation of alters,  inside and outside the home, dedicated to the lost friends and relatives.  These are intricately decorated with candles and skulls and flowers, and celebrants also leave photographs and trinkets of their lost loved ones, along with their favorite food and drink (even bottles of tequila!).  For dead children they leave candy and toys. They also leave pan de muerto, the “bread of the dead” and candy skulls made of sugar.

The items are heavy with symbolism representing humanity’s connection to both the spiritual and the temporal, as represented by the four elements, and are meant to aid the souls in their journey to the next world.  Candles represent the souls themselves; food offerings are there to provide sustenance to the souls on their journey; water is there to quench their thirst; pillows and blankets are sometimes left out so they can rest.  The remainder of the holiday is spent in a communal fashion, celebrating the dead by recalling memories and telling light-hearted stories about them.

In America, the Day of the Dead is celebrated with more of the emphasis on “the dead”, due to the influence of Halloween.  Its prominence has particularly grown in states along the border and in major cities with large Hispanic populations, and in many places its celebration has dove-tailed with that of Halloween.  While in rural Texas border towns the celebration is still very traditional, in major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland, the focus is very much on the festive aspects which tend to merge the holiday with the costumed elements of Halloween.  The parades in San Francisco are famous for turning out thousands of revelers dressed as calacas (skeletons) to walk the streets.  In Hollywood, revelers dress as their favorite dead celebrities, and build altars honoring the celebrity dead, even going so far as building altars to honor cancelled (or “dead”) television shows.

While Halloween is still the dominant holiday in America devoted to the dead, The Day of the Dead still seems the purer incarnation.  It doesn’t require any of the monsters or ghoulish imagery to fascinate, needing only the stark mortality visible in the skull itself.  YellowMan salutes this tradition focusing on our greatest skull imagery with a Day of the Dead-inspired celebration featuring the artwork of world-famous tattoo masters Bob Roberts (Laughing Skulls / Bronzed Laughing Skulls), Robert Hernandez (Fineline Post Mortem / Nightmare), as well as many, many others.  Be sure to check them out today, before this celebration expires.


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