Since a few of us from the Local Colors Artists’ Cooperative in Gloucester, MA are sponsoring (with the help of other talented members) a Day of the Dead display with original art work and a reception on November 2nd, I decided to explore the Halloween and Day of the Dead beginnings as the latter is often misunderstood here in the US. Being about 20 miles from the Halloween capital of the world, Salem, MA, I would never pit one against the other. It’s just that we are very familiar with Halloween: the costumes, the witches and ghosts, the candy, the parties. It’s a lot harder to understand an event called Day of the Dead which many find hard to get past the name itself, let alone appreciate the event.
Growing up, Halloween was one of my favorites. In those days you could actually go house to house with friends or even on your own. I really got into funky costumes like when I cut all my father’s old ties in half and stapled them to my clothes. I was a tie man! Nobody thought it was cool but me, but that was OK: free candy waited. We could stay out after dark and amass bags of treats. It was a time to get scared by ghosts and goblins, whatever they are. Who wouldn’t miss scary skeletons and ghouls with eyeballs popping out.
Who knew back then (or cared for that matter) that Halloween emerged from a Celtic pagan ritual. It was believed that during a certain time of year both good and bad spirits came back to visit sometimes in the guise of animals in which the cat was the most feared (I guess that’s how the black cat got a bad wrap). To appease the evil spirits, the Druids made bonfires, stayed up all night on vigil and left food outside so they wouldn’t be bothered by the bad spirits. They sometimes disguised their children in animal skins so they would not be recognized by the evil spirits. (It’s not hard to see where our current practices came from). There was a lot of fear going on. Then the Romans came and tweaked the ritual a bit with their festivals and customs. Finally, the Catholic church rolled it all up in All Saints and All Souls Day with big bonfires, parades and people dressing up as saints, angels and devils. Fast forward several hundred years later and some more tweaks and you have me, trick or treating into the night, extorting candy in return for not doing a trick (not that I would anyway) and smugly coming home with my booty.
On the other hand, Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican holiday (and in other Latin American countries as well) honoring the dead. It’s not a sad time, but a time for celebrating and remembering. Depending on the location, altars are made in homes honoring the deceased with photos, foods, drink, favorite personal items of the deceased like a shawl or hat and marigolds. The belief is the deceased adults come to visit on November 2nd and the altar with its goodies entice the family spirits back home. Sometimes families go to the grave sites and spruce them up, picnic there, sing songs or sit and tell humorous stories about their loved ones. They celebrate the annual return with sugar skulls, bright flowers and favorite meals. The departed relatives are remembered with joy, not sadness.
The origin of Day of the Dead dates back to Aztec times where ancestor worship was practiced. In those days the departed were close by buried under the homes or near the house. They viewed death as a continuation of life keeping their loved ones close. The dead were revered, not feared. Then the Spaniards came and in an effort to break the people of their nasty rituals, introduced All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day. The indigenous people played along, merging their ancient beliefs with the holy days.
Unlike Halloween skeletons which tend to be spooky, Day of the Dead skeletons are bright and festive due to the cultural belief that the afterlife is a fun and vibrant place. Day of the Dead art began thanks to the work of the 19th century printmaker and engraver, Jose Guadalupe Posada. Through his artwork he was able to express the close and comfortable relationship Mexicans have with death and the deceased. Originally, he wrote and printed satirical epitaphs about the politicians and the rich. (I’ll leave that one alone for now). Then emerged La Catrina: the legendary skeleton lady that symbolizes Death.
Posada’s legacy helped new generations of artists to express their cultural beliefs of that vibrant afterlife through their folk art styles depicting skeletons “living” the afterlife. Mexican satire and humor play a significant role in Day of the Dead art and the celebration. It’s OK to poke fun at life and death in this genre of art. Perhaps, at some level, it was a way of coping with life and death.
So both Halloween and Day of the Dead emerged from ancient beliefs and later mixed with Christianity. Both can be satirical and funny, but that’s where most commonalities end. Perhaps the biggest difference is the attitude toward death. Halloween depicts death with ghosts and goblins to be feared whereas Dia de los Muertos sees death as part of the life cycle, respects death and honors the deceased.
So even though Day of the Dead is not Halloween, there’s room for both. I would not have given up those trick or treat days for anything, but today, its Dia de los Muertos that resonates with me. And both can throw some damn good parties! So come see the Local Colors Artists’ Cooperative exhibit (www.local-colors.org) from October 19 through November 8th with an artists’ reception fiesta on November 2, 2013 from 6-8 PM.
PS: Halloween is gaining interest in Mexico as children find dressing up and free candy very appealing, but it’s not replacing the Day of the Dead celebration. Day of the Dead is also showing promise in the US. Adults are finding the Mexican cultural way of honoring those who have gone before us and influenced our lives more and more appealing.
MY HOME ALTAR