Friday, November 1, 2019

Magic, Memory and Art in Symbols of the Day of the Dead


A giant bedazzled skull with a skeleton on top being pulled by costumed people. All Soul's Procession, Tucson AZ
Last year at this time, I wrote a blog on the history and culture behind the Méxican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations on November 1-2. My position on this topic is unchanged: I believe that any celebration is made deeper and more fulfilling by understanding and appreciating its roots. For this reason, I am expanding on last year's blog and looking at some of the symbols of the Day of the Dead. In celebrating this special occassion, the hope and belief is that loved ones who have passed away will come back for a quick visit and most of the icons surrounding this celebration are an effort to entice them to do just that.

A view of a colorful ofrenda. There is a black and white portrait in the middle with many yellow flowers and food on a purple cloth.
An Ofrenda
Most Americans outside of the Méxican community have probably not seen an ofrenda before, but they are an essential part of traditional Day of the Dead celebrations. These displays are set up to honor and remember loved ones who have passed. Ofrendas can vary wildly - they can be over-the-top big and elaborate or can take up a small corner in a family home, but the purpose of most of the items displayed remain constant (here are some really cool ones). Within these key elements are items that have become recognizable to the population at large. There are other elements that are regionally specific and many, like the puppy, have deep roots in Mesoamerica and are of special importance to indigenous communities. The mystically magical themes of Day of the Dead are all tied to those ancient people of the region. Modern México brings the Art to the party – as visual enticement to the spirits and because everything is just more fun when it comes colorfully decorated.

People lin candlelight gathered at a gravesite. There are flowers and skull decorations around it.
Gravesite  Gathering
Every true ofrenda includes a nod to the four elements of water, fire, earth and wind. These items are often are laid out in a cross to show the cardinal directions and guide the spirits (this cross can also be interpreted as one of the many uniquely Méxican Catholic-Pagan mash-ups).

Water is left out for the spirits to quench their thirst after their long journey from the Afterlife. Liquor or beer may also show up, if that was the target spirit’s preferred thirst-quencher.

Candles are the fire – they represent hope and faith but are also signal fires guiding spirits on their way. The number of candles can show how many souls are being welcomed and the colors of the candles have meanings as well. Candles also appear outside the ofrenda; they can be seen marking paths to homes or in graveyards to form a spirit runway for them to see the route back home.

A closeup of a Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) roll. It is decorated with a red skull on top and sits on a pink cloth.
Pan de Muerto
Earth is represented by the earthly need and pleasure of food. The food being offered can be the favorites of a beloved ancestor (perhaps candy for a lost child) or regionally traditional dishes. The spirits cannot eat the food, of course, but it is believed that they can enjoy the sight and smell of it and remember its taste fondly. Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) is ubiquitous on ofrendas and has become popular all over North America. These sweetish, semi-spherical rolls or loaves are typically decorated with skulls, bones and the like. Want to create some traditional Day of the Dead food? Look here.

Color Papel Picado strung from a white building under a bright blue sky. By Bernard Borcas.
Papel Picado
Colorful Papel Picado (Pecked Paper) represents wind. You have probably seen this in a Méxican restaurant or two, but is much more than a pretty banner. Although these banners are used in other celebrations, for the Day of the Dead the colors blowing in the wind stand for important cultural values: orange for mourning, purple for Catholicism, red for warriors and women who die in childbirth, green for young people, white for little children, yellow for the elderly and black for death or the underworld. Other times, the colors are simply the green, white and red of the Méxican flag. As the Papel Picados flutter in the wind, they send welcomes, hopes, prayers and pride out into the universe.

Items such as portraits and cups are commonly seen on ofrendas throughout the region. Others are seldom seen outside of certain parts of México. Here is an interesting list of some of those. But, there are two symbols whose reach extends beyond the ofrendas, into the graveyards and streets and across North America and beyond – Marigold flowers and Sugar Skulls:

A woman surrounded by tall marigold plants. She has a large basket on her back that is held on by a strap across her head.
Marigold Harvest
Marigolds (or the Cempasúchil in México) are also known as Flor de los Muertos (Flower of the Dead). These vibrantly colored, fragrant flowers have been cherished in México since ancient times. The Aztecs attributed both mystical and medicinal qualities to this flower and used them in celebrations of the dead way back then. When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, they sent marigold seeds back to Europe with other appropriated goods. Like many of the other plants they sent from México, marigolds were a hit and are now a part of cultures far removed from this hemisphere (go here for a short read on this and some lovely marigold field pictures). The appeal of marigolds has not abated and today their strong scent and bright colors are seen as a beacon to guide spirits home and, because they bloom at this time of year, they are readily available for every seasonal decoration. These traditional blooms have spawned a million flower ideas, including the ever-popular paper flowers.

Close up of a woman white black and purple braids and an elaborately painted face. La Muerta by Fer Gomez on Unsplash.
La Muerta
A collection of colorful Sugar Skulls on a white background.Sugar Skulls are little confections that are traditional gifts for children (living and dead) and their bright, beautiful and whimsical decorations are meant to appeal to the playful nature of children. Like marigolds, they are on ofrendas and everywhere else. Sugar Skulls, along with La Catrina and her over-sized hat, have spawned endless variations. Here in Tucson, we even have an indoor football team named the Tucson Sugar Skulls. Full Disclosure: I’m a sucker for a good skeleton design.If you want to try your hand in making some,  here is a video.

Flashing images of different skeleton faces. Gif by gyfycat.comMéxicans are not the only people to believe that the divide between this world and the next thins out in the next few days, Celtic peoples thought so 2,000 years ago. Modern Halloween and the Catholic observance of All Soul’s Day both have roots in these ancient beliefs. So, take some time over this weekend to remember those you’ve loved and lost. You never know who may be waiting on the other side to come visit.


Submitted by Pam

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