To finish October, we look at The Day Of The Dead.
The Day of the Dead has a history that seems to be lost to the shadows of time, but one of its known origins has its start with the Olmecs, a group that inhabited south and central Mexico between 1200-400 BCE. The more reliable histories are found with the Aztecs, starting around the 14th century. They celebrated from the end of July to the beginning of August. The change to November occurred later. In the 1500’s, the Spanish were coming into Latin America, many of them Christian. They were shocked to see this culture of people who seemingly mocked death, celebrating and seemingly mocking it. While the Christians decided to slowly meld their practices with the Celts, they seemed to have wanted a complete changeover to the Latin Americans celebration. They pushed the celebration from August to November, and shortened it to two days, the 1st and 2nd, thus coordinating the beliefs with the Samhain/Hallows eve celebrations in northern Europe. It is interesting to see this co-ordination of the days, even though the Mexico and Europe were thousands of miles of ocean apart. In an ironic twist, the Christian faithful, in an effort to rid the world of paganism through masks, unknowingly cemented their use further into Western culture with the Halloween and Day of the Dead day unification.
The celebration takes place over three days; October 31st is the greeting day, the day that the dead are greeted, though for some towns it is also the day of arrival of child ancestors; Nov 1st is dedicated to past children, or in some towns, adults, and Nov 2nd to adults and is also the day of goodbye. This day carries forth to the modern day, however it has changed in its direction from the 20th century onward.
The Day of the Dead has its own symbol. While Halloween uses a pumpkin as its symbol, and Carnival is the mask, the skull is the symbol for Day of the Dead. The goddess that is worshipped is Catrina, who is the Lady of the Dead, or Death. Skulls are found everywhere during Day of celebrations. People wear masks of skulls or demons or Catrina to remember the dead. Parades and celebrations are held. Skulls are called Calacas, or skeletons. “Sugar Skulls” are made as offerings to ancestors. Pilgrimages to cemeteries are the norm. Going to the final resting place, people bring food, drink and memorabilia to the graves of loved ones. Children’s graves are adorned with toys; adult’s graves get offerings of tequila.
Day of the Dead has a timeline for the celebration. Although the practices may vary between towns, here is the basic 3 day timeline:
October 31st: The return of the children happens on this evening. The path to the home is laid with toys and marigolds for the children to follow. There is a table laid with sugar skulls and tamales for the children to partake. Songs are sung and children’s activities are performed for them.
Nov 1st: This day, depending on the location, is when some children arrive. Regardless, the day is the one the children leave. They must leave to make room for the adult spirits who will be coming that evening. Tequila is offered for the adult spirits, as well as food.
Nov 2nd: This day the adult spirits must leave, as well as any wayward children spirits. Skull masks are worn to chase away and scare the ancestors back from where they came. The “Cleanup” begins, as well as final goodbyes and memorials in the evening.
More recently, the day seems to be evolving into a form of Halloween. Children go door to door, dressed up and asking for candy or money. It has caused a bit of a stir with the older generation, who feel that the original meaning of the day is being lost. Others argue that, like Samhain and Carnival, the day has evolved from one of practice to one of symbolism. Regardless, Day of the Dead is still a very popular time for Latin Americans and tourists alike, particularly with the parades and the celebrations.