Day of the Dead has its origins in the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, who decorated their temples with walls of skulls to please their gods. The Aztecs celebrated Day of the Dead as early as 3,000 years ago. When the Spanish arrived, they viewed this tradition as a sacrilege, but they could not quash it. Instead, they gradually merged it with elements of Catholicism. The Aztecs celebrated Day of the Dead in the summer, but the Catholics moved it to November 1 and 2 to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Mexicans believe it is critically important to keep the memory of loved ones alive by creating altars that honor them. There are three deaths, they believe: the first death occurs when you stop breathing and physically die. The second death occurs when you are buried or cremated. And the third death occurs when no one living remembers that you existed. That is why the Day of the Dead altars are so important. By remembering and honoring your loved ones, you prevent that third death.
Skeletons in Mexican Folk Art
Skulls and skeletons are extremely popular in Mexican folk art. In about 1910, the cartoon illustrator José Guadalupe Posada created the skeleton “Catrina,” to make fun of wealthy Mexicans who thought the only worthwhile style was that of European aristocrats. That cartoon gave rise to more skeletons in all folk art mediums. The skeletons are not dead but are dancing, eating, bathing their children, gardening, and smiling. They accept death and even make fun of it. Some say they are laughing at the hubris of the living, who are foolish, fearful, and unappreciative of life! “You who are living,” they seem to say, “are rejecting the joy of life. You are not embracing each other enough! Watch us!”
Skeletons are one more example of the duality so common in Mexican folk art. Frequent themes are day/night; male/female; heaven/earth; black/white; sun/moon. Mermaids represent land/sea. And skeletons are all about the duality of life and death. Think of them as the yin/yang of Mexican culture.
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