The Day of the Dead

It was just a plain white folding table, the kind you find in any church basement or high school lunchroom. A volunteer had set it up, wiped its yellowed surface with a damp rag and pushed it against a cinderblock wall in the community center.

As golden leaves from the big cottonwoods outside began drifting onto the sidewalk and the October afternoons grew shorter, a few ofrendas, small altars dedicated to deceased loved ones, appeared on the table. At first there were only two or three. But by the time Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead arrived, the table was full.

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The simple cardboard ofrendas, dioramas filled with photos and mementos of the departed, were dedicated to grandmothers, uncles, best friends, celebrities and beloved pets. They featured cans of beer, Diet Cokes, candy bars and bags of chips. One included a small pipe filled with marijuana made from green modeling clay. There were dog toys, bottles of perfume, combs, miniature cars, catnip mice, fruit, toothbrushes, artificial flowers and bowls of pinto beans.

The spaces between the ofrendas were filled with sugar skulls painstakingly decorated with icing by elementary school students unfamiliar with the axiom “less is more.”

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The cinderblock wall was adorned with giant papier-mâché skulls, brightly-colored banners and tissue paper marigolds and the floor beneath the table was full of empty tequila bottles, battery operated votive candles and strings of glowing white Christmas lights.  

And throughout it all were cavorting skeletons, dozens and dozens of them dancing, laughing, smoking cigarettes, wearing lipstick and feather boas, kicking soccer balls, driving pickup trucks, sporting sequined sombreros, playing guitars, taking selfies and blowing kisses from the backs of motorcycles.

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Welcome to the Day of the Dead a celebration of the ties of love and friendship that transcend the grave. Its symbols remind us that we, like those whom we honor and miss so desperately, will soon be gone too.

But the Day of the Dead is not a somber, mournful occasion. It is a raucous celebration spiked with a healthy dose of macabre humor.

Death, after all, is nothing to be afraid of. It’s simply the other side of the coin we call life.    

Past as Prelude

The roots of the Day of the Dead lie deep in Mexico’s prehistoric past. The Aztecs believed it was essential to maintain strong connections with deceased family members including distant ancestors they had never met.

On Dia de los Muertos those who had crossed over were invited to temporarily come back to the realm of the living. To entice the dearly departed to return, surviving family members carefully prepared the deceased's favorite dishes, laid in a supply of his or her favorite beverage and filled the house with their loved one's favorite colors and flowers.   

When Spanish priests arrived during the colonial era, their Catholic observations of All Saints and All Souls Days on November 1 and 2 easily merged with the ancient holiday.   

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Things that Go Bump in the Night

Dia de los Muertos is not a Mexican version of Halloween. The two holidays are separate and distinct although they share some common elements the most obvious of which is they are celebrated at approximately the same time.

There is something weird about the end of October. It has always been linked with supernatural activity. Both the ancient Celts, who invented Halloween, and the Mexicans believed the veil separating the ordinary world of the living from the uncanny realm of the dead grew thin at this time of year. But they disagreed about the nature of the otherworldly entities that appeared during the night.

The Celts saw them as scary and potentially life-threatening. They carried jack-o-lanterns to light the darkness and to ward off wraiths, ghosts, goblins and other spooky beings. The Mexicans, on the other hand, embraced the wandering spirits. They believed they were departed friends and family members and they were anxious to welcome them home.

Traditional Day of the Dead observances began with the return of los angelitos or the little angels, spirits of deceased children, on October 31. The children stayed for 24 hours until November 1 when deceased adult friends and family members arrived. The adults remained through November 2, All Souls Day in the Catholic calendar.

Like Halloween, the Day of the Dead is a highly adaptable holiday. It has morphed into a seasonal celebration extending over a few weeks culminating on the first weekend after November 1. This allows for maximum partying unfettered by the annoying inconvenience of having to go to work or school. 

Here in New Mexico we embrace and celebrate both Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Each amplifies aspects of our state’s diverse culture and our longstanding connections to Mexico, Spain and Celtic Europe.

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If you travel around the state during this haunting time of year, here are some of the Day of the Dead elements you are likely to encounter.  

Ofrendas

The most touching custom associated with the Day of the Dead are the ofrendas. They range from huge, perfectly arranged displays set up by professional designers to the humble, home-made, heart-felt variety. Ofrendas almost always include photos of the deceased. Some also include real food, drinks and toiletries. Others rely on representations of favorite items; a drawing of a plate of enchiladas, a plastic green chile, a little model car. The dead, no longer being physical presences themselves, are perfectly happy with symbolic offerings.

Papel Picado

Perhaps the most colorful Dia de los Muertos decorations are the hand-made paper banners known as papel picado which means pecked paper in English. Craftspeople create the perforated banners by cutting or punching elaborate patterns into sheets of tissue paper, often working on stacks of as many as 40 sheets at once.

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Typical patterns include birds, flowers, skulls and skeletons. The banners are used to decorate ofrendas, walls, windows, doors and ceilings. Because they are fragile, they are generally meant to be used inside but they do find their way onto cars, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles and floats riding in exuberant community Day of the Dead parades.

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The Face of Death

The most widely adopted Day of the Dead custom is painting one’s face like a skull. Some opt for the full-face treatment; others prefer the half living, half skeletal. Regardless, the results run the gamut from a basic white background with blacked out nose and eye sockets to positively glamorous versions highlighted with glitter, butterflies and flowers.    

Catrina

The inspiration for many contemporary Day of the Dead symbols including skull face painting and the cavorting skeletons can be traced back to a single figure, the undisputed Queen of Dia de los Muertos, the one and only Catrina.

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Catrina was created by Mexican political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1910. She appeared in an etching as a high society matron dressed to the nines and flouting her pompous European airs, a style and attitude much favored by wealthy Mexicans at the time. However, there was one unusual thing about Catrina. She was dead. The message, of course, was that the superficial trappings of wealth, status and fame are fleeting.

Although she was not originally intended to be a Day of the Dead character, Catrina perfectly captured the spirit of the holiday and she has been the star of the show ever since.

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Collectibles

As Day of the Dead celebrations have become more mainstream in the US, a huge market has emerged for Dia de los Muertos-themed collectibles, costumes, skull makeup kits, jewelry and home décor items. Many feature Catrina and her skeletal friends engaged in all kinds of activities, including some designed to appeal to mature audiences. Day of the Dead merchandise is widely available all over New Mexico, especially in late summer and early autumn.  

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Parties and Parades

Hotels, bars, breweries and restaurants statewide throw elaborate Day of the Dead parties with music, food, lots of adult beverages and general merrymaking. Patrons are encouraged to wear costumes or paint their faces as skulls. A popular theme for these events is “Honor Your Ancestors and Party with the Living.”

It should come as no surprise that the biggest Dia de los Muertos parade in the world is in Mexico City and it is truly over the top. But Albuquerque puts on quite a show of its own each year with a parade in South Valley. It’s called Muertos y Marigolds and it is completamente asombroso, totally awesome.

Join the Fiesta

There are many ways to enjoy Day of the Dead celebrations in New Mexico. Here are a few possibilities.

You can see ofrendas at neighborhood centers, libraries, cultural venues and museums. Many locations feature special community ofrendas and invite the public to participate by adding mementos of their own departed loved ones.   

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  • The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe installs elaborate and beautiful seasonal ofrendas. There are also interesting Day of the Dead artifacts both historic and contemporary on permanent display. A visit to this museum is highly recommended any time of year.