Monday, November 12, 2012

Dia de los Muertos

Hallowe’en has come and gone, and we had a great party here at the park. There were scary costumes, funny costumes, dancing, lots of yummy treats, and a pumpkin carving contest.

But, for many of our neighbors here in deep south Texas, Hallowe’en takes a back seat to Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a traditional Hispanic holiday.

Now, don’t quit reading yet just because the name sounds creepy. It is really a happier and more enjoyable celebration than our Hallowe’en and is related to the same tradition. Centuries ago, the Roman Catholic church designated November 1st as "All Saints’ Day," and November 2nd as "All Souls’ Day." These were designated by the church as times for remembering those who had died during the previous year. The evening before (October 31) was called "Hallowed Evening," a time of remembrance and special prayers for the departed.

English-speaking peoples shortened the name of the October remembrance to "Hallowe’en" and, through the years, it has become focused upon the scarier aspects of death: ghosts, witches, ghouls, vampires, and other such frightening things.

In Spanish-speaking countries, however, the Roman Catholic holiday was combined with ancient native celebrations. An early August celebration of remembrance of the dead dates back 2500 to 3000 years in the Aztec culture. As time passed, those native customs and the Roman Catholic practices became mixed together.

In modern Mexico, October 31st is "La Noche de Duelo" (the Night of Mourning). Some families follow the custom of gathering in the cemetery to clean up and decorate the graves of deceased loved ones on that day.

(picture courtesy of Wikiipedia)

Decorations usually include favorite food and drink of the dead loved one, and perhaps an item representing a favorite hobby or activity, all enhanced with golden-yellow marigold flowers. Some families will picnic together at the gravesites as the elders retell stories of the deceased to the children. Many will sleep around the grave for the night.

November 1st is "Dia de los Angelitos" (Day of the Little Angels) dedicated to the remembrance of infants and children who have died. November 2nd is "Dia de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) on which adult ancestors and loved ones are recalled. 

Altars are built in many homes which often include a picture of the deceased, items representing his/her favorite food, drink or activities, a Christian cross, candles, and lovely paper art which flutters in every breeze.

Special sweets of the holiday also decorate the altar. Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead) is a special sweet bread often decorated with coils of dough in the shape of a skeleton. Skull-shaped sugar candies are a favorite for the children. The altar, too, is decorated with marigolds, the official flower of the celebration.

The mood is festive and joyful, even humorous. Telling stories about the deceased – especially funny tales – helps sweeten the family’s memories of the departed ancestor.

The home altar, dedicated to the deceased one, reminds all who enter the house how cherished and important that person still is to his/her descendants. Common images of the occasion include

(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

 skeletons and "catrinas",
(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)
elegantly dressed female skeletons, who serve as humorous reminders that the rich
 – as well as the poor – all die.

We were educated about this unique holiday as we toured a special exhibit at the Museum of South Texas History in nearby Edinburg, Texas.


We roamed through their exhibits of home altars, cemetery decorations, tasted some of the holiday sweets, and admired the jewelry, bags, tableware, and notecards created by skilled artisans especially for the holiday.

 We’re all in favor of substituting the humor of Dia de los Muertos for the horror of Hallowe’en!