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- Mexican Folk Art

History of Day Of The Dead (Dia De Los Muertos)

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Dia De Los Muertos

Amor de Frida by Ginette Rondeau

When the Spanish Conquistadors dropped anchor in “The New World” more than 500 years ago, they discovered natives that seem to mock death.

Aztec belief of 3 stages of lifeThe bizarre Aztec ceremonies had been practiced for at least 3,000 years. But the Spaniards were unfamiliar, deemed it pagan blasphemy, and banned it.

The ritual was Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Today it is a national holiday in Mexico on November 1 and 2 and has enjoyed soaring popularity throughout the United States.

And it is NOT Halloween, although there are similarities. Day of the Dead focuses on celebrating the memories of loved ones that have passed on.

While customs vary widely, the idea is the same: friends and relatives go to cemeteries to celebrate their loved ones. They paint their faces to resemble skulls, build altars at the gravesides and decorate them with bright orange marigold flowers, candles, photos and memorabilia.

San Miguel Cemetery in Oaxaca - Photographs by Juliane Backmann

The pre-deceased often sit on blankets next to gravesides and feast on the favorite foods of their dearly departed friends. Toys are brought for children who have passed and bottles of tequila or cerveza (beer) for adults. The libations are often poured onto the grass above graves for the deceased to enjoy. Pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones is passed around. Candied sugar skulls, with the names of the dead person written on the forehead, are eaten by loved ones. Often the proceedings last into the next day.

Their hope is to encourage visits by the souls that have passed so they will hear the prayers of the living. Celebrations are joyful and often humorous, as the living share funny events and anecdotes about the departed.

Day of the Dead Rascals - Artwork by Tony de Carlo

Day of the Dead Dude by Ginette RondeauAlthough Day of the Dead and Halloween do share skeletons and a place on the calendar, there are major differences. Look at the skulls in Dia de los Muertos ceremonies... they are not ghoulish… they are smiling!
Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the Aztecs viewed it as the continuation of life. They didn't fear death; they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.
But five centuries ago all this eluded the invading Spaniards. In their attempts to convert the natives to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual. But it refused to die.

Virgen De GuadalupeTo make it more Christian, the Spaniards moved it from its August dates so it coincided with Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (November 1 when it is believed that the spirits of the children come to visit and the 2nd when the adults come).

Today's ceremonies are often rich with crosses, rosaries and “The Virgin of Guadalupe,” images, indicating the blending of Catholicism.

Villages in rural Mexico are known for stopping all other activities for days surrounding the holiday.
In urban areas, some of the customs are different, and costumed children roam the streets, knocking on doors to ask for candy. This trick-or-treating furthers the Halloween confusion.

Beyond Mexico, the holiday is celebrated in Latin America and is on the rise even in the non-Latin populations of the United States, the South Pacific, Europe and Oceania. Similar rituals take place throughout Asia and Africa.

Strolling on Olvera Street by Juliane Backmann

But however different the ceremonies and celebrations may be, the intent of Day of the Day is the same: the spirits of the deceased still live within their family and friends. The lives of people who have touched others are to be cherished, celebrated, remembered, and passed on through the generations.

For more information and about events, visit www.Olvera-Street.com or email us at info@Olvera-Street.com

To see our Day of the Dead collection, visit: http://store.olvera-street.com/day-of-the-dead

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