November 1st marks the beginning of a 2-day celebration observed by the Mexican people to honor the souls of family and loved ones who have passed away. November 1st, also known as All Saints Day, honors the memories of the children and November 2nd, otherwise known as All Souls Day, honors the memories of the adults.
Rituals and celebrations include maintenance and cleaning of the grave sites, the creation of altars sharing the dearly departed's favorite food and drink, and gathering of family members to share stories and anecdotes regarding the deceased. Altars include orange marigolds, sugar skulls, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), as offerings to entice the souls of the dead back to earth to spend an evening with the living.
Rituals of a similar nature have been observed in Mexican cultures as far back as 2,500 - 3,000 years ago, however, one of the most popular images connected with the holiday appeared much more recently. In the late 1800's Jose Guadalupe Posada began illustrating what many consider to be early political cartoons regarding the Mexican government and the severe separation of classes between the poverty stricken and the wealthy citizens of Mexico. He created La Calavera de la Catrina, a wealthy Mexican upper-class female donning a fancy hat decorated with feathers and various finery. She was depicted as a skeleton implying that no matter how differently we live in life, even if we are afforded every luxury, we all end up dead in the end. During my forays on the Internet, I have also run across theories, that Posada was also mocking the wealthy Mexican citizens for trying to emulate the decadent lifestyles of rich Europeans. Posada created a series of these political cartoons and was considered to be a very controversial figure during this period.
It was only a matter of time before Posada's infamous La Catrina imagery became connected to the rituals of Dia de los Muertos. Today, La Catrina remains as one of the most popular and recognizable symbols for this intriguing celebration.
My parents never actively participated in El Dia de los Muertos rituals when I was growing up, maybe because we are a culturally blended family, but mostly because I'm sure my father would consider it to be a bunch of nonsense. Ah, what a stubborn fellow, my dad. I do, however, remember attending my grandmother's funeral when I was a little girl and being very nervous. I didn't know what to expect and not having a complete grasp on the concept of "death" at such an early age, I was left to draw my own scary conclusions, as only a child can do. After a very tasteful and respectful service presided over by my uncle, we attended a reception, and I can't remember if it was at my grandmother's house or perhaps at the church. What I do remember is that there were a lot of people there...relatives, friends, people in the community who came to pay their respects, and what began as a very somber event quickly turned into a party-like atmosphere. Folks sat around and reminisced about my grandmother, sharing stories and laughter. Food was a never-ending buffet of dishes that arrived with each attendee, ensuring that everyone went home filled to the brim with enchiladas, chili, beans, tortillas, etc. And there were high octane libations, as well...lots of beer and the occasional bottle of tequila. I have never been to a funeral since then where all the guests were having such a good time, except when my best friend's father passed away. Again, everyone mourned and cried during the service, but the reception following was joyous and celebratory. This too was a Mexican funeral.
As I think back on it now, I can't help but liken both services somewhat to El Dia de los Muertos rituals where the message is not as much about the life lost, as it is about the life lived, and I really respect that.