Dia De Los Muertos
Although commonly associated with Halloween, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos was a pre-Christian pagan celebration. Like the Celtic holiday Samhain. The Mexican Day of the Dead was re-appropriated as a Christian holiday. Miller notes that Dia de los Muertos is at least 3000 years old. Modern celebrations of the holiday reveal a synthesis of indigenous Mexican and Catholic imagery and practices, also similar to Samhain. Like the pagan predecessor to Halloween too, the Day of the Dead bears tribute to deceased ancestors and is not the morbid holiday the conquistadors imagined it to be. Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with an array of offerings, encouraging participants to contemplate the meaning of life.
The festival starts October 31 and ends November 2, and that time period is believed to thin the layer between the worlds of the living and the dead (Hernandez). Participants leave offerings in cemeteries including candy and flowers. Parades are also an integral part of the Day of the Dead festivities. Skull-shaped handicrafts and edibles are common emblems of the Dia de los Muertos. For example, a special “pan de muertos,” or bread of the dead is shaped like a skull and placed on an altar as an offering. Home altars are often adorned with flowers, candles, and photos of deceased loved ones (Hernandez). Altars may be more formal, including a representation of all the four natural elements. For example, a bowl of water, a candle, food, and a moving object represent water, fire, earth, and air, respectively.
In spite of its focus on death, Dia de los Muertos is not a somber occasion. Dancing and parades are lively, encouraging children and people of all ages to participate. Masked dancers add a mysterious element to the dances, though. Some dancers wear calacas, wooden masks that symbolize the spirits of the dead. While the holiday offers an opportunity for deep reflection the overall theme is one of mocking death, even celebrating it (Hernandez). Contact with the conquistadors devastated much of the indigenous Central American culture but did not totally eradicate some of its major cultural emblems. Catholic missionaries readily drew parallels between the Dia de los Muertos and the Catholic holiday All Saints Day. The synthesis of All Saints Day with Dia de los Muertos allowed the native population of Mexico and their descendants to continue practicing their ancestral traditions.
The Dia de los Muertos has widespread popular culture appeal because of the amusing, colorful imagery of skulls and skeletons. Tourists to Mexico enjoy participating in the ceremonies or viewing the parades for entertainment value. The colorful costumes and calacas masks look like a combination of frightening and fun. Many who view the festival as an outsider miss out on the opportunity for personal reflection that the holiday entails. The Dia de los Muertos celebrations offer a chance to honor ancestors: the men and women whose blood flows through our bodies. Similarly, the Dia de los Muertos encourages reflection on social traditions and allows the current generation to appreciate life.
Like most Mexican holidays, the Dia de los Muertos involves several social functions that include music, dancing, and food. Thus, the holiday is not wholly centered on death even though emblems of the Dead are everywhere in the skull-shaped imagery and food items. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Day of the Dead is its co-occurrence with the ancient Celtic pagan holiday Samhain, which is the precursor to Halloween. Both Samhain and the Day of the Dead were transformed into Christian holidays even though they have pagan origins. Furthermore, both the Day of the Dead and Samhain honor the dead at the same time of year.
Hernandez, Aracely. “Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).” 1998. Northern Notes/Northern Illinois University. http://www3.niu.edu/newsplace/nndia.html
Michoacan: The Altar.” Retrieved Nov 14, 2007 at http://www.dayofthedead.com/TraditionAltars.html
Miller, Carlos. “Indigenous people wouldn’t let ‘Day of the Dead’ die.” AZ Central. Retrieved Nov 14, 2007 at http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/history
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