My interest in the Day of the Dead was sparked
by my love for
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), the
renowned Mexican artist.  When I began to
explore her world, I became interested in
certain facets of the Mexican culture.  





















Frida self-portrait, with her husband, popular
revolutionary artist Diego Rivera, depicted as
"always being on her mind", and pictured with
her pet monkeys.


















Day of the Dead art rendering of Frida, with a
few of her beloved birds.

What I find fascinating about the Mexican
culture is that, unlike the U.S., death is not seen
as a tragic thing to be morosely focused on and
feared.  On the contrary, Mexicans embrace
death and consider it a continuation of the cycle
of life.  To wit:

"The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about
it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it:  it is
one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast
love."

- Octavio Paz,
The Labyrinth of Solitude

Even children in Mexico become familiar with
death at a young age by playing with folklore
toys.  Among these toys are skulls mobiles,
skeleton stick-puppets, miniature coffins, and
the like.  “Skeleton people” are crafted from
various materials doing everyday things to add
to this cultural philosophy.  The Mexicans laugh
at death; they honor their dead and celebrate
life.













Background

Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, has its
roots in a mix of pre-Hispanic indigenous
Mexican beliefs and post-Conquest Spanish
Catholicism.

In the Aztec culture, religion and art were
closely tied together.  The Aztecs had two major
fiestas:  The Little Feast of the Dead, held in the
9th month, which honored children; and The
Great Feast of the Dead, held in the 10th month,
which honored adults.

After the Spanish Conquest of 1521, the Aztec
and Catholic feast days for the dead were
merged to create the celebrations which are
known today.  October 31st is recognized as the
day to honor those children who have died,
November 1st is All Soul's Day, which honors all
the departed, and November 2nd is All Saint's
Day, which honors all Christian saints & martyrs.

Celebrations – Fiestas!

The specifics of fiestas throughout Mexico vary
slightly from region to region, but the theme is
the same:  celebrating and honoring the lives of
the departed.  Colorful and festive materials are
used to create amazing objects.  Candy makers
craft sugar skulls (to say “I honor your sweet
spirit, living or dead”), candles are made, and
fields of marigolds are gathered in preparation.

Altars (Ofrendas)

The most personal, and most significant, rite of
the Day of the Dead celebrations is the
preparation of altars in order to honor the
departed and call their souls back to earth for a
visit.  Tables are set up in the main room of the
house and are covered with cloth or decorative
paper.  Tiers are formed which hold offered
items.  A holy image is placed at the center of
the altar.  A photo of the departed or a sugar
skull with the name of the deceased on it is
placed near this image.  The family and friends
of the departed gather the favorite possessions
of the deceased or purchase new items in their
honor.  Food and beverages are placed on the
altar as an offering, and then are later
consumed by the celebrants.  Skeleton figures
may be crafted to represent the interests of the
deceased.  Marigold blossoms, colorful paper cut
in a myriad of shapes, and numerous candles are
placed on and around the altar.  The soft and
comforting light of the candles present a warm
welcome for the dead.  Incense is burned.  A
small plate of salt represents the spice of life,
and a glass of pure water is set out to refresh
the soul after its long journey.  The altars for
children have simpler, less spicy food, and more
sweets.  Images of angels and doves are
included as a part of a child's altar.  Goods from
the home altar are transported to the cemetery
for graveside offerings.  The most extravagant
decorations are for gravesites of the recently
dead.  Night vigils at graveside, punctuated at
times with song and dance, serve as family
reunions with the dead.  So, if your family made
an altar in your memory, what items would they
include?

Day of the Dead Art

Day of the Dead art has become increasingly
popular.  José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913),
a Mexican engraver, provided inspiration for
contemporary artists with his popular images.


















The picture in this frame is of one of Posada's
popular images of a festive skeleton dance.













This piece has been damaged through a couple
of moves, so one of the skeletons has lost his
face, but I wanted to show you Posada's widely
popular image of
La Catrina.




























Another Posada depiction.  Who can say no to a
skeleton proposal?

The ubiquitous skeleton figurines doing everyday
activities are also very popular.  I have
quite a
few of these myself.

Speaking of which, my favorite contemporary
Mexican artist is Bryant “Eduardo” Holman of
Fausto's Art Gallery in Ojinaga, Chihuahua,
Mexico.  He is the self-proclaimed “King of Taco
Deco”, because he uses the wood from taco
crates in his pieces.  While I enjoy the skeleton
figurines, Holman's art - with its unique style and
hand-crafted elements - is my favorite.  Click
here to go to my collection of his pieces.

Further Reading

Carmichael, Elizabeth and Sayer, Chloë.  The
Skeleton at the Feast:  The Day of the Dead in
Mexico
.  Austin, TX:  British Museum Press and
University of Texas Press, 1991.