Halloween, falling as it does on the start of the darkest time of the year, focuses on those who have departed. In the United States, on October 31, the emphasis may be on ghosts, monsters, and scary pumpkin faces, but in earlier times, and in other cultures, this is the time to honor the dead.
In Mexico, indigenous customs mingled with the Spanish Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day on November 1 (“Halloween” is an abbreviated version of All Hallows’ Eve), during which people pray for those who have died. The resulting holiday, Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), is a joyful celebration of those who have died.
People gather in cemeteries, decorate graves with flowers and candles, play music, feast, and dance. Altars are set up in homes, adorned with candles and flowers, and displaying pictures of the beloved ancestors. Food and drink are set out for their benefit. This custom is one that I have adopted, which reminds me every year to take time to honor my ancestors.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
Art celebrating Day of the Dead depicts skeletons – both human and animal – engaging in everyday activities, affirming there is indeed life after death. One of the most fascinating forms of this art is the sugar skull. Brought to Mexico in the seventeenth century by Italian missionaries, sugar art was originally used year-round as altar offerings and decorations. Now associated most often with Day of the Dead, artists create these symbols in various mediums. The sugar skull motif can be found on clothing and in tattoos, jewelry, and murals.
Whether in paint or frosting, the elaborate designs of sugar skull art are symbolic of life in death. Flowers bloom around empty eye sockets and sunbeams radiate from skeletal brows. The sugar skull’s juxtaposition of sweetness and death is at the heart of Día de los Muertos – we laugh and we grieve, and we laugh again.
Day of the Dead 2017 Wall Calendar