“Death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back.’”
— from the movie “Gladiator”
Halloween is the second most profitable holiday in the US, especially popular with costume shops, candy makers and special event planners. For mainline America the holiday means pumpkins, ghosts, and “fun-size” candy bars. But in the Southwest there is an extended holiday with an entirely different flavor.
In Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico, the Halloween season is expanded into Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and people come from far away to celebrate. In the Christian calendar, Halloween (All Hallows Eve) is the night before All Saints/All Hallows Day, November 1. The day after All Saints Day is Day of the Dead when all the deceased (saintly and otherwise) are remembered, often with a sizeable side helping of humor.
Especially in the Colonial towns of central Mexico, cemeteries resemble a combination tailgating party and family reunion as families tidy and decorate the graves of their ancestors. Surrounded by food, flowers, pictures and sharing of memories, people gather to remember and honor the deceased relatives. In their homes people build small altars (ofrendas) decorated with marigolds, favorite foods, and other mementos of the departed relatives.
On the Day of the Dead people don macabre costumes (Calaveras) with lots of skeleton images on otherwise black clothing. Two years ago our son dressed up with a group of friends to ride their bicycles in the neighborhood Marigold Parade in south Albuquerque. (We enjoyed a few laughs with the crowd when they cycled past us and he and his friends called out “Hi Mom!”) Many parade spectators were dressed in even more elaborate costumes.
White sugar skull-shaped candies replace the chocolate candy bars of Halloween. A traditional bread for the holiday is a rich orange-flavored bread called Pan de Muertos — a round loaf topped with crossed bones shaped from dough. Illustrations and dioramas show human skeletons in various amusing poses – like “waiting for Mr. Right to telephone.”
Altogether the atmosphere is lighthearted, celebrating life and taking the sting out of death. Rather than focusing on Halloween’s ghouls, zombies, and ghosts for the fear factor, Dia de los Muertos takes friendly pokes at the condition we will all know eventually.
If you want to plan now to get a new perspective on the spectral season next October or any time, just let me know.
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
27 October 2016