Here are 3 questions I was just asked about Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities, and because they may be on the tip of many tongues out there- I will pose them here. They reflect popular misconceptions.
To help answer each question- my music amigo Gilberto responds first; he grew up in Texas celebrating all of the Mexican traditions of Dia de Los Muertos on both sides of the border. I add bits from my experience of 20 years adapting customs from celebrations in Texas and California. Other info sources as noted.
Is Dia de Los Muertos Ancestor worship?
No, not at all. Day of the Dead festivities are our traditional way in Mexico and Chicano households to honor the lives of loved ones we have known who have passed from this world. Ancient customs of the Aztecs involved worship and offerings to a goddess named Mictecacihuatl.
Why are the Days of the Dead about celebration? Shouldn’t we be mourning the dead instead of partying?
In family oriented cultures (i.e. Mexico, India, China, Japan…), life and death are not so far apart, and every family milestone is marked by celebration by all generations. This is very much so in Mexican and Chicano families; birthdays, coming of age ceremonies, weddings, births, jobs, and deaths are all major family events.
Unlike a western memorial service that may be more on the quiet side, preparation for the Days of the Dead involves color, light, music, arranging bright alters, and making special food and drink. This isn’t to say that the family isn’t sad or mourning if there has been a recent death- just that the family and culture overall honor the lives of the dead with joy and festivity.
For Dia de Los Muertos, families and entire towns in Mexico and now the US, come to life with a bustle of special activities to honor the dead. What would this look like in a typical home in the weeks and days leading up to Oct. 31- Nov. 2? While the father would be constructing the ofrenda or alter, small children would be fashioning bright masks, or painting smiles of icing on sugar skulls. Older children would be cutting templates of bright, many-colored tissue papers for papel picado banners to hang inside and out of the house, with large groups of relatives coming over- events are held outside. Strings of lights are hung too. “Mother would be cooking a big traditional meal of all of our favorites; there would be the smell of Pan de Muerto (special decorated bread for the dead) wafting from the kitchen. Our grandparents would arrange photos of family and friends on the alter- some of whom have passed in the current year.” All would help place candy, mementos, and flowers. There is color (bright marigolds) everywhere, the smell of copal (resin incense), cinnamon from the atole stirring on the stove. There is laughter, stories told, music, and the buzz of family.
Communities honor the Days of the Dead too with celebration; artists perform and comedians act in skits and plays- casting death in roles where they are mocked and called names. In Mexico, and the larger US cities, after a party in the town center, a parade or procession follows to the cemetery. Graves are cleaned, families bring picnic baskets of food and drink to the gravesite, and music and partying can go on all night, usually the night of Nov. 2nd.
Is Day of the Dead Morbid?
While artists offer many interpretations of Day of the Dead art and iconography, personal or sometimes gothic in nature, traditional Mexican folk art for the holidays- like sugar skulls- are usually smiling or laughing, shown fearless and free of worry. Some even wear braces on their teeth 😉
As to our fear of death while living? Here is a wonderful description by an author who writes on how exactly death is challenged by all of the activities we do during Days of the Dead:
“The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him. Once he knows death intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to fear the darkness.
Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death’s morbid side is buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death.” Author-Judy King (www.mexconnect.com)
Source: Frenzy Art- I love all this artists work.