I have been told many times that Silicon Valley, where we live, is a melting pot of different cultures. That, we were able to see last Monday, when we celebrated Halloween. Diwali, a festival of lights, also started that same weekend, which is celebrated by Indian Hindu people. While trick or treating, it was sometimes difficult to know which houses were celebrating halloween with the porch light on, and which ones had Diwali lights. Many of those lights look very much like the Christmas lights our family uses, so it was almost like having Halloween, Diwali and Christmas at the same time. That is how diverse our neighbourhood is. Someday I would love to see how Diwali is celebrated, but this week however, I got to know a whole new festival.
There are a lot of Mexican people living in California. We are bordering neighbours after all. Mexicans have brought a piece of their culture with them, and many traditions have also mixed up with the local traditions. There is one celebration however, that I have not yet got to know, and also is during Halloween time. Now it was time to go see how the Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos is celebrated.
THE HISTORY OF DAY OF THE DEAD
The roots of Día de los Muertos go way back to pre-columbian times. It is thought to come out of indigenous people's rituals, including the Aztecs and Mayans. In the Aztec calendar this day was originally in August (9th month of the Aztec calendar), but when Christianity was mixed with these traditions, it was moved to November where all the other days dedicated for the deceased were, for example All Saints Day. The same happened with Halloween which comes from celtic roots, and the day was called All Hallows Eve. Even though the Day of the Dead displays pictures and costumes with skeletons and skulls, it is not the same as Halloween. The idea of the Day of the Dead is very different.
The celebration is dedicated to a goddess (Lady of the Dead), who today is resembled by La Calavera Catrina. The character of Catrina was born between the years 1910 and 1913 by illusionist José Guadalupe Posadan. However, it has a big resemblance to a character from the times of the Aztecs. Today Catrina can be seen everywhere in the Day of the Dead celebrations.
HOW IS THE DAY CELBRATED
Traditionally, Day of the Dead is a multi-day celebration. November 1st is dedicated to dead children, little angels (angelitos), and November 2nd is for adults. It is believed that on these days, the spirits are able to visit their families. For the visits, families will decorate the graves of deceased loved ones, and build altars. They will also bring things to offer (ofrendas) to these altars. Offerings are usually the favourite foods of the person remembered, traditional foods, fruits, marigolds and candles. There are pictures and mementos on the altars. Also, there usually are two traditional Day of the Dead things; Pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread) and calaveras (sugar skulls). After the celebration, the foods are often eaten but many say, that they lack in taste and nutrients, since the deceased have already eaten from them.
Despite the dark name, the Day of the Dead is a colourful and joyful celebration. Usually it is celebrated with the family, but there are also festivals where people can join the festivities. At home, people set up altars or they go to the graveyards, where they might sit thru the whole night. At the same time as they eat, they tell stories about their deceased loved ones. In some parts of Mexico kids dress up, and in some, it is common to paint your face with a skull (calaca) or dress up as La Calavera Catrina. Sugar or chocolate skulls are given as gifts especially for kids. Many families prepare for Day of the Dead for a long time, and it can be very expensive, but it is a very important day.
Today, the Day of the Dead is celebrated world wide in different Latin countries. The traditions might differ a little, but the main idea remains the same.
Like most Mexican festivals, Day of the Dead is a very lively and family oriented celebration. Everyone is welcome to join, and especially children are always part of the traditions. When we visited the festival in my hometown, people who had dressed up were more than happy to pose for pictures, and willing to tell me about the day. It was great to be able to be part it and learn so much about this beautiful tradition.
Aztec dance from the Day of the Dead festival: