First time attending a Day of the Dead Celebration? Confused about the difference between Day of the Dead and Halloween? Esta bien. Check out these top 5 things to help you understand this festive Mexican holiday. ¡Disfrutar!
1. A SHORT HISTORY OF DAY OF THE DEAD
The Día de los Muertos originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.
Many people believe that during the Day of the Dead, it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. People will go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, and will build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, and photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.
3. WHAT'S UP WITH ALL THE SKELETONS?
During Day of the Dead, life-size papier-mâché skeletons and miniature plastic or clay skeletons are everywhere. Why? Mexicans honor their ancestors on Day of the Dead, but they're also reminding themselves that death is just a part of life. Hanging out with skeletons reminds people that one day they will be skeletons. The skeletons are often posed doing all sorts of everyday things, such as playing guitar, taking a bath, or making tortillas.
4. WHO IS LA CATRINA?
The La Catrina/El Catrin has also become one of the most recognized characters associated with Día de los Muertos . At Dia de los Muertos festivities throughout the Americas, we see more and more women, young and old, wearing fancy gowns and hats, and painting their faces to look like calaveras de azúcar, or sugar skulls. La Catrina has become the preeminent symbol of the afterlife and is la grand dame of all Dia de los Muertos festivities. But who is La Catrina?
In the early 20th century, Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada created an etching to accompany a literary calavera. Posada dressed his personification of death in fancy French garb and called it Calavera Garbancera, intending it as social commentary on Mexican society’s emulation of European sophistication. “Todos somos calaveras,” a quote commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath all our manmade trappings, we are all the same. Today, La Catrina has grown to be much more than just a caricature of Mexican women denying their indigenous ancestry. Instead, she, and her male counterpart El Catrin, are now considered the faces of death in Mexico and in other parts of the world where Día de los Muertos is celebrated.
5. IT'S NOT A MEXICAN "HALLOWEEN"
While Halloween and Day of the Dead do share some common roots, they are totally different holidays. Rather than treating death as something dark and frightening, t he Day of the Dead is largely about laughing in the face of death, as represented by the ubiquitous calaveras and Catrinas, which are often depicted dancing or playing music. And though it is about remembering lost loved ones, the holiday is more a time to celebrate their memories than to mourn their loss.
One of the most recognized characters associated with Dia de los Muertos is La Catrina. With recent films like The Book of Life and Coco garnering critical acclaim and tremendous success at the box office, we see the popularity of Dia de los Muertos growing amongst people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. At Dia de los Muertos festivities throughout the Americas, we see more and more women, young and old, wearing fancy gowns and hats, and painting their faces to look like calaveras de azúcar, or sugar skulls. La Catrina has become the preeminent symbol of the afterlife and is la grand dame of all Dia de los Muertos festivities. But who is La Catrina?
The iconic figure was first imagined by Mexican artist and printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada. First appearing around 1910, La Calavera Catrina depicts a female skeleton adorning a fancy European style hat. Posada’s creation was a satirical commentary on native Mexican women, who, in Posada’s opinion, were neglecting and even willfully choosing to forget their Mexican heritage in pursuit of a wealthy, upper-class, European lives. Clearly a political statement at the time, La Calavera Catrina and the leaflet she first appeared on has evolved into a symbol of lasting cultural significance, especially as related to Dia de los Muertos.
La Catrina has grown to be much more than just a caricature of Mexican women denying their indigenous ancestry. Instead, she, and her male counterpart El Catrin, are now considered the faces of death in Mexico and in other parts of the world where Dia de los Muertos is celebrated.
Over time this imagery has evolved far beyond Posada’s sketch to include costuming and parading, fine art (see Diego Rivera’s 1924 painting, Day of the Dead, or 1948’s Sunday Evening’s Dream), and especially folk art. Placed on altars and sold at festivals and events, La Catrina and other skeleton figures made of wood, paper, clay, and even cornhusks are depicted acting out any number of activities. Whether dancing, going out on the town, or enjoying a glass of wine, the figures remind us that life is indeed a part of death, something we will all experience, and is most certainly nothing to be feared. Unfortunately, Dia de los Muertos is often confused with Halloween, horror, and haunts. La Catrina and her skeletal friends remind us that it is instead a holiday of sacred remembrance and festive celebration.
The Utah Cultural Celebration Center invites you to dress up as a La Catrina or El Catrin for our upcoming Dia de los Muertos Celebration on Saturday, November 2nd from 11am - 6pm. Learn more about the contest below!