The Real (Ish) Story of the Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead has a cultural moment. The fall festival, marked by images of skeletons, altars to deceased ancestors and grand parties, is becoming more and more celebrated, but where did it come from and what does it all mean? Keep reading, future- calacas.

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is an annual holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd when families invite the spirits of deceased friends and relatives to a party. The border between the World of the Living and the Land of the Dead is believed to be open these days, so your beloved Uncle Tony can hang out and enjoy the food, drink, music and fun he loved so much before he abandons his death coil. (But he will probably be invisible.)

The idea is to have a party that the dead will want to attend, so it’s not about mourning, but about telling stories and anecdotes, dancing and delicious food to celebrate and remember those we love instead of mourning them. absence.

Day of the Dead: Skeletons and ghosts may look like creepy Halloween ghosts, but the two holidays are not even related in spirit. Day of the Dead is not about creepy, haunted ghosts and gloomy. This is more a confirmation of life (and death) than that.

Where did the Day of the Dead come from?

The ancient origins of this holiday are a bit obscure. Some believe that Day of the Dead customs originate directly from the Aztec Empire in Central Mexico. The Aztecs held at least six different Day of the Dead-like celebrations throughout the year, including a celebration in honor of Miscoatl, the god of war, which took place from October 20 to November 8 and included the placement of food altars near tombs. warriors to aid their journey into the afterlife.

When the Spanish conquered and colonized the Aztecs in the 16th century, the dates for these celebrations were moved to the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, but in practice they remained the same.

This is one version. Some people think that Day of the Dead, as it is celebrated today, has more in common with medieval European festivals and celebrations than with American pre-Columbian ones. In particular, the Day of Remembrance of the Dead, dedicated to the memory of the dead, and danse macabre , in which dancing skeletons in paintings, prints and performances were supposed to remind us that the same fate awaits the beggars and kings, when death will bring justice to all of us. …

The truth is probably somewhere in between, a clash of cultures in which indigenous, religious, artistic and political influences have been brought together to create a uniquely startling novelty.

How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

While Day of the Dead events and traditions vary from place to place – they fly giant kites in Guatemala, and some families in Bolivia decorate their loved ones’ real skulls with flower garlands – there are some widespread hallmarks of the holiday, especially in Mexico and the United States.

Altars: usually installed at home, these sometimes complex shrines can include banners, «papel picado» (tissue paper, cut decorative patterns), candles, favorite dishes, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), photos and ofrenda, offerings. typical for the holiday, like a child’s favorite toy. They usually gravitate towards flowers, especially orange or yellow marigolds, the sweet scent of which is said to help guide souls into their homes.

Skulls and Skeletons: Skulls and skeletons are present in all Day of the Dead celebrations, from small “sugar skulls” adorned with colorful glaze and placed on altars, to intricate skulls and flowers that some people paint on their faces. These are colorful skulls with big smiles, not the creepy ones like Halloween.

In many ways, the modern “look” of Day of the Dead can be attributed to one drawing. The painting La Calavera Catrina by cartoonist and public figure José Guadeloupe Posada was published in 1911, a year before the start of the Mexican Revolution. Katrina is a French-style skeletal socialite, wearing a hat with flowers and a big smile. The title sentence in La Catrina’s brochure summarizes the idea behind the drawing: “The outfits that are covered in makeup today will eventually turn into deformed skulls.”

Cemetery Visit: For many families, Day of the Dead celebrations include visiting the graves of loved ones, cleaning them, decorating them with flowers, and leaving offerings. Bands play in cemeteries here and there, and relatives often have picnics to pack the deceased’s favorite food.

Parties : Most deceased relatives would probably avoid hanging out at a harsh, depressing party, so music, drinks, and food are a big part of the day. The food is often the favorite food of the dead, and tequila, mezcal, and atole, a non-alcoholic beverage made from corn, cinnamon and vanilla, are also often drunk. But feel free to drink whatever you want. This is what Aunt Rosie would like.

Politics : Politics has been part of the Day of the Dead celebrations at least since the publication of Katrina. In the 1970s, the Chicano movement used the holiday to call for discrimination and glorify Mexican heritage, and in the 1980s, public altars were set up to commemorate AIDS victims. In 2019, a huge altar was erected in honor of the victims of the El Paso shooting.

Public Celebrations : While traditionally a more private celebration, Day of the Dead parades, festivals and street parties have become popular in recent years, especially in Mexico and the western United States.

In support of the ever-changing nature of the festival, one of the biggest festivals was inspired by the film of James Bond . In 2015 Spectrum , Bond attends the (completely fictional) Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City. The following year, the city hosted a real holiday for those who were expecting it, and since then it has become a tradition.

Is celebrating Day of the Dead cultural appropriation if you’re not Hispanic?

It depends on who you ask. “Cultural appropriation” (of a holiday or something meaningful, really) is a tricky thing, but I think most Mexicans won’t mind a genuine, respectful interest in Day of the Dead, as Irish people like me do. I don’t mind you eating soda bread and listening to The Pogues on St Paddy’s Day (here’s the real story of St Patrick’s Day , if you’re interested). In any case, this is probably a moot point: it is clearly happening whether people like it or not.

Why is Day of the Dead growing in popularity?

Holidays rise and fall in fame and cultural popularity, often for hard-to-determine reasons, but Day of the Dead in the United States coincides with more Latinos immigrating to the country, just as St. Patrick’s Day became almost ubiquitous with the influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century.

Pop culture influences from films like the aforementioned Specter and Pixar’s CoCo have fueled interest in the holiday, as has old-fashioned capitalism , creating a critical mass of holiday popularity that grows every year.

Ultimately, though, I think the “conquest” of Día de Muertos is not only about marketing and demographics. I think that many of us, regardless of our nationality, need to think about death in a new way. The Victorian tradition of death that permeates the “mainstream” of American culture – when we admit death at all, through black robes and mourning – is simply not enough. Glorifying the dead with joy, as well as glorifying life (even if we admit our own mortality) is a much better excuse for the holiday than a marmot emerging from a burrow or something like that.

Also: Skull and skeleton images are obviously always cool.

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