La Catrina is the reigning queen of Dias de los Muertos, the Mexican fiesta honoring the dead. Finely dressed in an upper-class Victorian style, an oversized, feathered and flowered hat perched primly on her skull, elegant but skeletal, La Catrina was popularized by Jose Guadalupe Posada in his political lampoons of the corrupt regime of Porfirio Díaz. Her role, then and now, is simple: She reminds us that rich or poor, famed or unknown, we all eventually become skeletons.
Dias de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico and parts of the Southwest United States. Traditions vary but generally November 1, known in the Catholic world as All Saints Day, honors dead children and is frequently called Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). All Souls Day, November 2, honors all ancestors. Some communities use October 28 to pay tribute to those who died a violent death, while October 29 can be a day to honor the unbaptized, and October 30 often serves as a day of remembering lonely souls. All celebrations include building ornate altars, extended family gatherings, bountiful feasting, storytelling, and meticulous decoration of cemeteries.
Many cultures honor their dead with annual rituals and celebrations; often thousands of years old, these ceremonies frequently occur around the new year. On their Lunar New Year, Asians explode tons of fireworks, burn costly shrines created to honor ancestors, and parade dragons noisily through streets. Memorial Day in the United States is a somber occasion and leans toward the militaristic; rituals include draping red, white, and blue bunting everywhere, planting flags, and intoning long lists of those who died in service to the armed forces. Celts build enormous bonfires on their new year's eve, October 31, known as Samhain, and commune with their dead while the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest.
Early Christian history is often vexingly convoluted and that is the case here. The original All Saints Day appears to have been celebrated May 13, 609 (maybe 610) by Pope Boniface IV when he rededicated the Pantheon in Rome to Santa Maria and all martyrs. May 13 coincides with the final day of Lemuria, a Roman three-day ritual honoring ancestral spirits. All members of a community attended a feast on that date and ritually forgave each other's past transgressions. Sometime during his reign (731-741), Pope Gregory III moved the date to November 1. It seems that the hierarchy of the early church had difficulty altering the pagan traditions of early Christians, because records show that both Pope Gregory IV (827-844) and Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) were forced to again mandate November 1 as feast day of All Saints.
Then, circa C.E. 1000, Saint Odilo, the abbot of Cluny, decreed that on November 2 all Cluniacs would offer special prayers for Christian souls expiating their sins in purgatory. The Benedictines and Carthusians followed suit and shortly thereafter the Catholic Church officially added November 2 to its all-star lineup of holy days.
Before the Spanish conquest of the American continents, the cultures of Meso-America, especially the Nahua (Toltec, Aztec, Tlaxcaltec, Chichimec, Tecpanec and others from the Valley of Mexico), remembered their dead in a month-long celebration that centered around the return of the Monarch butterfly, a symbol of the returning souls of the dead. The 3000-year-old festival specifically honored the dynamic duality of life; rather than an end, death was simply a continuation of life to the Meso-Americans. Mictecacihuatl, a goddess believed to have died at birth and known as the Lady of the Dead, presided over the ceremonies.
Catholic Spaniards rigorously attacked this frightful celebration with its skulls and skeletons, dancing and feasting, which in their European sensibilities was an unholy mockery of death. Using techniques learned from subalterning indigenous holy days for more than a millennium, the Catholics moved the fiesta from August to their November timeframe and whittled it down from a month to two days. They were never quite able to complete the transformation to a somber, religious ceremony spent in prayer, for Dias de los Muertos is a far cry from anything resembling serious Catholic mourning.
Dias de los Muertos has a complex history and because of this regional celebrations vary significantly. Some Mexicans begin this holy period on the evening of October 31. Others observe November 1 solely. Some communities extend the ritual for as long as a week. Key elements, though, appear in virtually all Mexican rituals: the ofrenda or altar, feasting, cempasuchiles (yellow marigolds), calaveras (skulls), incense (usually copal, a tree resin), pan de muerto (bread decorated with powdered sugar bones), and gravesite grooming.
Traditional Hispanic cementarios (cemeteries) and descansos (little crosses marking the site of someone's death) are regularly tended. Family members visit gravesites on all significant anniversaries, including days of birth, death, and marriage, and adorn the headstone with flowers, repaint the ornate fence surrounding the plot, and commune with their dead by telling stories and praying. In Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver richly paints a vision of one such carefully tended cemetery:
Dias de los Muertos is a time for thorough cleaning and decoration of all gravesites. Old and young, everyone in the family attends the dead on these days and the event is festive, often resembling a large community picnic. Much of one day is spent caring for those interred; those graves with no living family in attendance will receive as conscientious care as any other site during Dias de los Muertos. Again, Kingsolver gives a delicious glimpse of the atmosphere:
Elaborate ofrendas are created in virtually every home preparatory for these feast days. Traditional altars are three-tiered and covered in white cloth. Creativity flits and tumbles in the embellishment of these shrines. Decorations may include toys for the children who have died, piñatas, balloons, tequila for the adults, cigarettes if the dead one smoked, enchiladas and tamales for everyone, living and dead. Certainly photographs of the beloved dead will grace the altar, as will candles. Besides the calacas (wooden skulls) and skeletons that bedeck the family's ofrenda, pan de muerto and sugar skulls, with each family member's name scripted across the forehead, lay ready to be consumed.
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