Monday, November 2, 2009

For Those We've Loved and Lost

Magnet # 82:  Chichen Itza Photo

Material:  Plastic

Purchased By:  The Kibby Family

Once again, in Mexico and around the world, people are bringing out the sugar skulls and pan de muerto in honor of Day of the Dead, or "Dia de los Muertos."  It's a holiday set aside when families gather together to celebrate the memories of their deceased members.  Some believe that this is a special time when the souls of these individuals have an easier time visiting those they left behind.  It's not mournful at all - on the contrary, there are bright colors and people are happy in their revelries.  And it's the second part of a two-day festival.  Day of the Dead celebrates deceased adults, while the more-sobering, lesser known "Dia De los Ioncentes" occurs on November 1.  It's when deceased infants and children are remembered, often with the use of the color white.

There are a variety of traditions upheld on this day to celebrate lost loved ones.  Perhaps the most popular is building an altar to the deceased.  These can be very elaborate, consisting of crosses, flowers, sugar skulls with the name of the deceased, photos, candles, and items dear to the person.  Some people wear wooden skull masks and dance for the memory of their loved ones.  Family members may also spend time in the kitchen, preparing some of the favorite dishes of the deceased.  They then travel out to their grave sites, where they straighten up and place the food, beverages, and other offerings there as gifts to attract the souls of the dead.  Marigolds are particularly popular flowers on this day, as it is thought they draw in these souls.  When they believe these souls have arrived, participants pray and speak to them, sharing the memories of the lives they shared.  They bring blankets and pillows as well, and may spend the entire night there in some areas of the country.  And once the day's festivities have come to an end, they remain and eat the food they have brought for their dead relatives, although they believe the spirits have consumed the "spiritual essence" of the meals, taking away its nutritional value.  But these traditions may vary greatly from town to town.  Recently, children have even taken to the streets in costume on this day, knocking on door and ask for candy or money, in acts that resemble Halloween.

I decided to post this magnet featuring the ruins at the Mayan site of Chichen Itza because it's very likely that when they worshipped here, they also celebrated the Day of the Dead, or a ritual very much like it.  This is a celebration whose roots likely go back thousands of years.  Of course, back then the skulls were real, not made of candy.  Back then, the participants believed that death was not the end, but a continuation of life to be embraced.  The Aztecs played a major role in creating the forerunner for Day of the Dead, a monthlong series of festivities in honor of their own "Lady of the Dead," the goddess Mictecacihuatl, who was believed to die at her birth.  When the Spaniards landed in the New World and observed these festivities, they were aghast.  They thought this showed that the natives had no respect for death and they were mocking it it.  They did all in their power to end the practice. In the end, when the Catholic religion was adopted in Mexico, they incorporated All Saints' Day into the celebration, even changing the date from August to coincide with the Catholic tradition.

Some critics may say that the Day of the Dead is too morbid, or is controversial because it focuses on spirits, but I think it's a nice idea.  The only established holidays where we celebrate the dead in the United States are times like Memorial Day, which focus on the military dead.  I appreciate the fact that there is a day set aside where families can come together and celebrate the members they've lost over the years.  It makes death seem less permanent and more like a temporary separation, and graveyards can transform from a place of somber loss to being filled with colorful blankets, altars, and flowers as participants celebrate those they've loved and lost and enjoy the company of those they still have.

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