Segment 20 – Day of the Dead

Today we tried to get ourselves immersed in Mexican culture with the quirky traditions of la Día de los Muertos. Hear us chat about it here:

We played a couple of traditional Mexican tunes to get in the mood: ‘Cruz Olviada‘ by Dorance Ospina and ‘Vamonos‘ by Lila Downs.

The Day of the Dead is a national holiday in Mexico that goes for two days, 1-2 November. The basic idea is celebrating the deceased. People make altars in their homes or visit the graves of their loved ones and conduct various ritual practices to attract their spirits and commune with them. A big part of it is offerings: people leave sugar skulls with the deceased’s name inscribed on their forehead; they cook the deceased’s favourite food; they print pictures and write message to the deceased. Other little idiosyncratic items are also left, like toys for children or little bottles of tequila for adults. Then they play music, dance, have picnics and so on around the graves. It’s sad, but celebratory at the same time.

The tradition can be traced back to the indigenous practices of the Aztecs and other native peoples of central America. These people did not see death in the same way as Europeans – it was just another stage of life. The Spanish invaders had a different reaction, thinking that they were mocking the dead with their use of skulls and so on. They saw it as inimical to the Catholicism they were trying to evangelise and attempted to suppress the celebration, which at that time went for a whole month in about August. Ultimately they gave in and decided to appropriate it instead, moving the holiday to November 1-2, the dates of the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days (known in popular Western culture as Halloween). These holidays are also about communing with the dead, so the move was successful. Now, Catholic elements are spread through the celebrations: masses, prayer vigils, rosaries, images of the Virgin Mary, and so on.

Over time the holiday has changed shape, and it is celebrated uniquely in different regions across Mexico. In 1910 a cartoonist named Jose Guadalupe Posada made an etching of a rich woman as a skeleton, named La Calavera Catrina (displayed). She has gone on to become one of the defining images of the Day of the Dead. In fact, depicting people as skeletons is a common cultural practice associated with the festival. Cartoonists regularly depict public figures as skeletons, for example. People also write tongue-in-cheek, mocking epitaphs for their friends or other public figures, as if they were already dead. This kind of open, irreverent approach to death is sorely lacking in contemporary Western societies.

(P.S. If you’re in Sydney, check out the Holy Kitsch stores in Newtown and Surry Hills for all manner of brilliant and surprising Day of the Dead-related paraphernalia!)

Next week we’re going somewhere very different – Punjab – and looking at Sikhism. Surely some of them make rock music, right?