In so many words, Dia de los Muertos is an adapted tradition from a month long celebration began by the Aztecs. Skulls were used to honor the dead because they symbolized not only death, but rebirth as well. And, well, they had a plentiful collection laying around because they kept them as trophies after killing people :o)
From what I’ve garnered so far, there are two common ways to celebrate this holiday in Mexico. One (which is more common in the pueblitas outside of the city limits) is to go to the cemetery to party all day and to decorate the grave site in marigolds, candles, and place offerings of items that person liked, such as toys, tequila, favorite foods, cigarettes, etc. The purpose behind that is that it was believed (in Aztec times, not sure about now-a-days) that the loved ones came back to visit during this time.
More in the metropolitan areas, people go to the gravesites less to celebrate and more frequently set up an altar in their home, sometimes dedicating entire rooms to the altar – which are frequently adorned with sugar or chocolate chalacas (skulls), pictures of the venerated deceased, candles, flowers, favorite foods, and the like.
Oh, I should mention Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday, and yes, we do have the day off.
From what I understand (based on many things, including that book I read a month or so ago about the Four Agreements) is that the natives believed that dying doesn’t signify the end of life, just the ending of a dream in which (in death) they become truly awake. It’s not so far from our concept of heaven, I suppose, but the big difference is they didn’t fear death, they embraced it. Or so we assume….
In my opinion, I’ve always seen skeletons as kind of creepy and scary. And the amount of adoration of these objects here did seem a little sacrilegious – I mean, putting a skeleton on an altar?? You might as well throw a creepy scary clown up there & a murderous doll that comes to life after dark, too. And, the whole coming back to visit thing is kinda creepy to me, but the base of the tradition is rooted in a culture that viewed death completely different than I do. I believe we die, our souls are ascended into some concept of heaven and we spend an eternity there…..but still despite that comforting fate my mind has been molded by society to fear death, the unknown, and scary things like ghosts and skeletons.
The Spaniards when they came to Mexico thought the same thing….Although I must admit, I would have thought it to be much creepier if they were using actual human skulls too! So they tried to extinguish the celebration – and instead of the original month long celebration it is now one or two days, and its been moved from the 9th Aztec month (August, ish?) to now coincide with the Catholic celebration of All Saint’s and All Soul’s day.
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So, along with living in a new culture comes appreciation and adaptation of my views to incorporate new things I’ve learned. I must admit, even thought shock of seeing zillions of skeletons initially shocked me, I’ve grown to like them – the wild colors and creative decoration certainly can be appreciated as art – and some of the skeletons just are down right cute! Its hard to be afraid of a dancing skeleton wearing a mariachi hat and holding a guitar, you know?
I’ve even purchased a couple items for the celebration, including a fabulous Pop Up altar ready for use in our home – all we have to do is write the name of our dead we would like to honor and that’s it! It even comes complete with lit candles, skeletons, food and tequila! Best of all – I found it at Wal-Mart! Nothing like getting a good dose of the local cultural from Wally World!
As Keith and I were walking around La Quimera last night (the art festival in Metepec’s Centro) we saw rows upon rows of potential offerings. I picked up a couple sugar cube skulls – no chocolate ones since I ordered some from a guy at work that makes them with his family every year. Also saw other incredibly ornate skulls, but we passed on buying those.
Sugar cube type skull-itos - only about 1 1/2" highCrazy decorated ones - more about 4" high - not sure what the heck they were made out of....
There were also little sculptures of fruit and veggies created out of paste from the pumpkin seed, and also figurines you could buy that represented careers the dead had while living or hobbies. They had a skeleton teacher and student, one drinking a beer with his dog close by, doctors operating and taking X-Rays, oh yeah, AND (get ready for this) strippers. HA! So if the dearly beloved had a career as a pole dancer, you could get a figurine to represent her as well! See if you can find her in the picture below.
If you click on the pic, you can see better the detail of the intricately placed pole, and the mat that reads "Table Dance!". ¡AWESOME!
I also purchased some local art particular to Metepec. Its an Arbol de Vida – which typically depicts scenes from the bible – but in this case is adorned with things to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Too cute! And also a clay skull to hold a candle, for our home altar, of course! I just love the detail and colors!
Last but not least, and completely unrelated to Dia de los Muertos, I purchased a nice wool serape. I’ve been trying to find one that isn’t hella big on me, but that looks nice and has a pretty natural color – and I lucked out and found one for $110 pesos! What a steal! Now I can be fashionable and warm in my office! I probably should have picked up some wool socks to keep my ankles warm, too, now that I think about it……