Our window is full of skeletons - dancing across the floor - lounging in chairs - stacked in a cube - hanging on the wall. But this isn't Halloween. It's Dia de los Muertos - Days of the Dead - and one of our favorite holidays.
People often compare Dia de los Muertos to Halloween, and while at first glance there may appear to be a similarity, in truth the two celebrations are quite different. Halloween is a European holiday that is based on their concept of death, which is vastly different from the original Aztec meaning. Day of the Dead began as an Aztec celebration originally celebrated in August. Skeletons and skulls were used as symbols for death and rebirth. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it and considered it a “moving-on” to a higher level of consciousness.
When the Spaniards came and converted the Aztecs, the Aztecs incorporated the symbols of the crucifix and devil into the celebration, which the Spaniards moved to November 2nd. The concept of the Devil did not exist for the Aztecs until their conversion to Christianity.
Day of the Dead art is meant to show the duality of life - that it can only exist surrounded by death. This is reality, not superstition. The artwork is meant to show this and make death a part of life - to be accepted and acknowledged instead of feared. While the skulls and devils might be unusual to some, no one who learns of the holiday can deny it’s underlying beauty. As the old saying goes: “Every day is a dance with death.”
Dia de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico and the Southwest states, and coincides with the Christian All Souls and All Saints Days. On November 1st and 2nd people remember those who are deceased. November 1st is considered the Dia de los Angelitos—the day to remember children that have died, November 2nd is the traditional Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead).
Pictures of the deceased are placed on Dia de los Muertos altars, ofrendas, or memory tables with their favorite food and drink. Candles to light their way home, and soap and water to freshen-up after their long trip back are also often placed on altars. Trinkets they were fond of, symbols they would understand, and gifts are left to communicate to them that they are always in the hearts of those they left behind, and that they are still part of the family even though they aren’t physically with us any longer.
Families often spend time at the cemetery with loved ones, bringing food and drink along with all the other necessities for a picnic. However, at this picnic the deceased is the guest of honor. Dia de los Muertos is a time of joy because we know that we are surrounded by those that we love—both living and dead.
So live a life you enjoy, and when the time comes that those you love build altars to celebrate your life on the Day of the Dead, know they are thinking of you and they will join you in their own time.
(With thanks to artist Ladislao Loera, our friend from Frenzy Art, for this little history lesson.)