No matter where you're from, there's one thing all these holidays have in common. All of these celebrations believe that the time just before winter, is the one time the veil between the living and the spiritual world is at its thinnest. November 1st marks that day. While some of these holidays celebrate the day, some celebrate the eve of November. This is also a time of renewal. The point where mortality is brought to light and and awareness of the life cycle, from life to death is one. In winter, the world goes dormant. This night is the night before that process. The old dies out to make room for the new come Spring. Death is simply a continuance of life. Another plane of existence.
Aztecs had a celebration of Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Dead. The Aztecs believed that the dead preferred to be celebrated rather than mourned. This celebration would last an entire month. In 1521, the Spainards came to South America and conquered the Aztecs. The Spainards believed that the Aztecs were Pagan barbarians. Once the religion of the Catholics was introduced to the Aztec beliefs, a comprise was reached. Mictecacihuatl became the more modern "Catrina", which is the figure that is typically depicted today. She is very ornate, covered in fancy clothing and flowers. She serves as a reminder that death is eminent. No one can avoid it, not even the rich.
Unlike many cultures, death is not taboo to the Hispanic culture. People do not fear death, and "Death" himself is a part of art and legend. Death is viewed as a celebration, rather than a time of mourning. Death takes on a colorful happy persona versus the dark looming figure that it does in our own American culture. He is often depicted playing with children, playing instruments or gleefully drinking and celebrating. Depictions of sorrow or weeping is considered disrespectful to the dead who are coming to visit.
(click on photos above to enlarge)
Last night was the first Dia De Los Muertos celebration that I have attended. We start our night at a local restaurant in Old Sacramento, La Terraza. A beautiful elaborate altar is set up in the restaurant as an offering to the dead. In the last few years, the popularity of the Day of the Dead has become very mainstream. Sugar Skulls are on nearly everything from clothes to kitchen towels. Calavera face paint has become very popular, especially in tattoo culture. My love for death has certainly made the draw of the holiday, huge for me.
Today I want to use this day as a time for learning, to understand this culture I'm drawn to. To understand it, and participate in it. I admit at first I wonder how I will be received as a blond haired white girl, coming to a Day of the Dead event. I imagine with its new commercial attention, that possibly Hispanics may feel that the new attention is disrespectful. How many people have a Dia De Los Muertos tattoo, but how many actually understand the culture behind it?
As a people, do Mexican people find this lack of knowledge discourteous? I can't say that I blame them if they do.
But as it goes, I feel I should experience it. Not as a fad, but as a life experience. I honor death. I honor culture. I feel respect.
As I walk up, it's just as I would expect, predominantly Hispanic. I feel no funny looks, (except for the fact I have white contact lenses, and get the occasional stare or thumbs up). I sense no discontent. I feel welcome. I notice these beautiful altars full of flowers, mostly marigolds. Being Pagan/Christian, (no I'm not confused, but thank you if you felt concerned by that) I understand altars and honoring what we love. I feel a comradery here. I approach a table offering flowers and cards to attach to these altars. I ask about the custom and I am openly welcomed to join in. I look around and I am not the only Caucasian participating. I feel the new wave of commercialism is somewhat welcome by those of us attending, simply because we are honoring and showing respect. We are taking the time to learn. We celebrate on this night, together, to honor our loved ones- no matter our ethnicity.
The altar is beautiful. I walk around. Some cards are written in Spanish, some English. All beautiful sentiments for those who have left their earthly bodies. No matter what the words say, all are out of love and honor.
Aside from altar making, there is also Calavera painting, which are also known as Sugar Skulls. Its neat watching people paint them, especially the older ladies. I watch them chatter and smile as they make these happy little decorative faces. It's said that these Sugar skulls represent the dearly departed. They can be given as gifts to both the living and the dead. They are placed on ofrendas (altars) for the dead, but also given to the living in honor of their deceased loved one. Sweets and toys are thought to be left for any loved ones, but especially deceased children known as Los Angelitos "the Little Angels". For adults, gifts are left in the form of tequila, mezcal and trinkets.