El Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead/All Souls Day has its roots in the Aztec and Maya traditions of Mexico and is thousands of years old.
It has become more & more recognized and celebrated here in the greater American West in recent years. The Day of the Dead as it is celebrated in central and southern Mexico is an incredible amalgamation of native and Catholic beliefs, and honors departed members of the family. As the time of year when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest, it is believed that the departed actually come back, returning to visit their grave sites and the scenes of their lives.
One of the ways that Mexicans cope with loss is to view the concept of death in an almost playful manner. Markets are filled with candy skulls (complete with names) and statues and depictions of calacas (skeletons) engaged in everyday acts like playing music, celebrating weddings (and funerals!), riding skeleton horses, bikes, and countless other life delights.
Artists have participated in the long-standing tradition of creating calaveras (skulls) to celebrate this event - often satirizing the events, customs and personalities of the day. The most famous Mexican artist known for this is José Guadalupe Posada.
In the northern frontiers of Mexico and border regions, El Día de los Muertos is more muted but departed family members are honored just the same. Fall is when families of the departed clean grave sites, give them fresh paint, and decorate the graves with flowers--fresh, silk/plastic, and hand-made paper.
Of all the seasons of the year, Fall is my favorite. Here in the Sonoran Desert the temperatures begin to cool and there is a restful stillness in the air. Around the world, many cultures celebrate this time as the annual window when the veil between the spirit and physical world is the thinnest. In pre-Christian times, death was not a thing to be feared but a transition to be celebrated as another form of life. In this way, family members and ancestors were honored and kept close in the hearts of the living.
During this special fall window, many grand occurrences take place in nature that have helped people connect with those who have passed on. In North America, one of the most phenomenal is the mass migration of the Monarch butterfly. Every year, 60 million-one billion Monarchs make the journey from eastern Canada to the forests of western central Mexico. They arrive in the state of Michoacán every fall. The Purépecha Indians in the region have noticed the arrival of monarchs since pre-Hispanic times. In the native Purépecha language, the monarch butterfly is called the harvester butterfly, because monarchs appear when it's time to harvest the corn.
Monarchs and the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) also occurs when the monarchs appear. According to traditional belief, the monarchs are the souls of ancestors who are returning to Earth for their annual visit.
All Souls/All Saints/Day of the Dead occurs officially on November 2nd. In Mexico, however, it is a three-day celebration that begins on October 31st. More on this festive tradition next post.