Yesterday, Nov. 2nd, was Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico. This holiday can be traced back to the Aztecs and it survived the Spanish invasion, although now it is a mesh of ancient beliefs and tints of Catholicism.
The Aztecs viewed death as a natural part of life itself; they celebrated death. They observed their crops and realized that as part of a harmonic cycle, their crops lived for a period of time and died, only to come back to life the following year. Because of this, death to them meant a peaceful balance: As long as there is death, there will also be new beginnings, new life.
Dia de Muertos is a holiday meant to remember and honor loved ones that are gone. An altar– a shrine-like set up– is placed for them, and tradition says that on the night of Nov. 1st their souls will come back to live in our world for a few hours. As eerie and spooky as this may sound, the holiday itself couldn’t be further from either description. It is a colorful and vibrant celebration, where humor usually takes the lead role.
Visual, culinary and written arts come to play: It is common to write Calaveras on the days leading up to Nov. 2nd. Calavera literally translates to ‘skull’, but in this context refers to a kind of short, satirical poem in which a person — commonly a politician, celebrity or public figure– is made fun of and spoken of as if she were already dead.
Also, ceramic and clay skulls beautifully decorated can be found everywhere. Not to mention the sugar skulls! They’re tasty as they are visually charming. The humorist expression continues through both these branches:
Mariachi. Aren’t they lively? *snort* source
Last year, Anna and I hosted a Dia de Muertos night in our home for 15 kids and their parents where we shared all that we know about the holiday. The night before the big day we dressed up our living room according to the tradition: lots of colorful papel picado (shredded paper, considered an intricate form of art when done by Mexican craftsmen), and of course the altar.
The designs of papel picado can be quite complicated and detailed. Papel picado used for Day of the Dead will commonly depict scenes in which skeletons attired as people are involved in every day activities. In the picture above, the skeletons wear sombreros and cheer on a cock fight. source
Anna and I dressed as Catrinas. La Catrina is a lady skeleton, a character representative of Day of the Dead. She is usually depicted elegantly– wearing a big hat full of flowers and feathers, and beautiful dresses. Her male counterpart is El Catrin, who just like his lady, tends to be refined and well-dressed.
La Catrina y El Catrin. source
The altar is probably the most important aspect of Dia de Muertos. It is basically a shrine in which you pay homage to a loved one who is no longer in this life. Our altar was dedicated to my Aunt Rosy, my mom’s oldest sister. She passed away a few years ago and I have the most wonderful memories of her.
What you see above is a picture of her as a young lady, surrounded by food that she liked (tacos), tequila (because tequila is a must!), marigolds made of paper (we call these flowers zempasuchil and they are the representative flower for this celebration). A glass of water is also there, in case the loved soul gets thirsty after the long voyage.
There was talk about the Aztecs, Moctezuma and his love for cocoa, the Spanish invasion, and how their desire was to convert the nation entirely into catholicism. We discussed the Aztecs’ beliefs about the afterlife and, as part of Dia de Muertos celebration, I had the chance to share a couple of stories about my Aunt Rosy: Stories that keep her memory alive for me.
We finished the day by decorating skull masks, and as a gift each child got some molding clay and accessories to shape and decorate their own skull, like the one Anna made for the altar:
In a few days I will be going to Toronto with some good friends for the Dia de Muertos celebration hosted there by the Mexican community and I’m so excited about what I’ll get to see! I’ll get to see home, that’s for sure.
There are many things to be learned about Dia de Muertos, but to me the most important lesson is always: In the remembrance of death, celebrate life as well. They are, after all, two parts of one whole.