Day of the Dead is similar to a celebration called All Saints’ Day, a Christian holiday honoring those who have passed on. However, parts of Día de los Muertos predate the Native Peoples of the Americas contact with Europeans. In a tradition more than three thousand years old, the Maya and 40 more indigenous civilizations of Mexico, totaling over five million people continue these annual observances. The Mixtec believe that the souls of their ancestors return to spend time with their descendants each year at the beginning of November. In beautiful synchronicity, that is represented by the monarchs’ return from their northward migration. The orange and black butterflies flitting home are received as the spirits of their progenitors.
In Oaxaca and Chiapas, the festival is also a harvest celebration. Corn is presented to thank the gods for this food staple and to the muertos to share in the harvest. Ofrendas (offerings) are presented and altares created with exquisite folk art. Mexican families take a picnic feast to the cemetery and commune with their dead. They lovingly decorate the graves with marigolds, papel picado (cut paper decorations), photos of the deceased, and prepare a plate of their favorite food. From a European point of view, this may seem morbid. Perhaps from the circle of life perspective, it shows amor, respect and connection.
Día de los Muertos evolved from Catholic and Native traditions into a key Mexican national fiesta. The religious syncretism over the last 500 years overlapped into the rich celebration of life and death we see today. The fusion is so complete, it is difficult to separate the origins of each part of the ritual. In Austin, Texas at the Mexic-arte Museum I saw beautiful altares crafted to commemorate loved ones complete with photos, papel picado, marigolds, skulls and culinary offerings.
One year after Evan and I moved to Madison, we began to throw a Día de los Muertos party of our own. We met dear friends in a Spanish conversation group, and invited them to participate in the festivities. Inside our apartment, we decorated altars for our dearly departed: grandparents, a mother, a sister, uncles. A flat table or bookshelf, a special table covering, a picture of our loved one, a skull or skeleton to show they’ve passed on, an object or poem dedicated to them, a wine glass or candy container.
Grown-ups and children attend the fiesta. Kids wear their Halloween costumes and many adults dress as their favorite muerto from the year. Last party I was Mary Tyler Moore. Merrymakers have dressed as famous musicians, politicians, authors, naturalists, and artists.
Who might you celebrate this year?
Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco. -Rebecca
Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic en El Día de los Muertos Mexicano el viernes.