Dia de los Muertos

dayofdeadUnlike last year, when we saw a few interesting stories about Reformation Day celebrations, I didn’t find a single one this year. Which is a shame since I was looking for an excuse to link to this awesome Reformation rap.

But there are a few stories about Dia de los Muertos. The Los Angeles Times had its “Day of the Dead feast is a high-spirited affair” piece with recipes and videos and tons of ghosts. It’s a weird piece in that it gets into quite a bit of detail about how the day is celebrated and yet includes no actual religion. The story features Sandi Romero of Mama’s Tamales:

Feasting on the traditional foods of the holiday (tamales, turkey in mole, pan de muerto and champurrado are some of the most popular) isn’t the primary focus of the day, but a secondary event, something that happens once the altars are built, the spirits remembered.

“You serve them first,” says Romero of the spirits and of the food traditionally placed at the altars and in cemeteries to honor the souls of the dead. “You remember them and then you eat.” . . .

Romero, a third-generation Angeleno, grew up with six siblings in the San Fernando Valley before she married and had a daughter and moved to Pasadena. Her grandfather was from Puebla, Mexico, her grandmother from Durango.

“Growing up, that was my thing: I loved Dia de los Muertos.” Romero, a former Aztec dancer, remembers dancing in the cemeteries on the holiday and hosting parties at her house celebrating the event.

It’s clear that this holiday revolves around remembering dead relatives but there is no explanation of its religious basis — either with the indigenous people of Mexico or in Catholicism. The Mexican celebration occurs in conjunction with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. This year, those days will be marked on November 1 and 2.

Instead, the Times treats the story mostly as a food feature. Compare that to the story in the San Francisco Chronicle. In this case, the story is a preview of a symphony concert with a Dia de los Muertos theme:

“There is no equivalent of ‘Jingle Bells’ for Dia de los Muertos,” Enrique Arturo Diemecke says of his biggest challenge as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony’s inaugural Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Family Concert at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday. “Dia de los Muertos is almost an unexpected celebration. It sounds morbid, but it’s not. It’s more like a memorial day where we celebrate with our loved one’s favorite flowers, food and music. And we just happen to do that at the cemetery.”

To capture the spirit of the holiday, which mixes ancient Mexican Indian ceremonies with traditional Catholic beliefs, Diemecke insisted on putting together a musical program with a positive and upbeat twist.

“What ties the theme together is an overall feeling of happiness, with optimistic melodies and exciting rhythms,” says the Mexican-born maestro, who is now the music director of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic of Teatro Colon, in Argentina.

It’s a brief article, and it certainly doesn’t go into as much detail as it could, but at least it gives some basic information. Particularly for an arts piece.

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  • Julia

    I lived in Korea for a year back in the late 1960s. There was an annual remembrance of dead relatives that also involved eating meals in the cemetary along with traditional rites and sprucing up the burial site. This must be a universal thing – except for moderns who have lost touch with the basics of life and death. People used to die at home. The whole family witnessed the decline and death of loved ones. Churches all over Europe, including Protestant England, have burials right in the church – sometimes with effigies that moderns now find creepy. You won’t find that in new burials anywhere but in Catholic Italy now.

    Our Catholic parish still has a special Mass every year near November 1st, All Souls’ Day with a special ritual where the names of all who died during the previous year are mentioned. I’m sure other parishes do this, too.

    However, when we got our new Catholic Missals and liturgical calendar in the 1970s, gone were the rogation and ferial days that formerly had to do with the changing seasons, crops and harvests. That would be a good story for some reporter to do: how modern/urban religious practices have detached from previous agrarian-era rituals, including formally honoring the deceased long after they have departed.

  • Jerry

    The Wikipedia article mentions Korea as well as other cultures and some references in popular culture.

  • str1977

    “… All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. This year, those days will be marked on November 1 and 2.”

    Which of course holds true every year, doesn’t it?

  • http://retrocapecoral.blogspot.com Marc in Cape Coral

    “The Mexican celebration occurs in conjunction with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. This year, those days will be marked on November 1 and 2.”

    Ha, yes; All Saints is always November 1st and All Souls November 2nd.

  • Dave

    Mollie wrote:

    It’s clear that this holiday revolves around remembering dead relatives but there is no explanation of its religious basis [...]

    Mollie, in a sense the Day of the Dead has no religious basis; it is a religious basis. It’s found in religions around the world and, in a sense, precedes the religions in which we find it embedded. Like shamanism.

    This is not just theory on my part. Twenty years ago I decided to offer Unitarian Universalists a UU version of the same holiday in Paganism, Samhain. I found I could transpose the core of the holiday literally into the key of UU, using liturgy from the UU hymnal (the old one, before UU Paganism influenced it). I did not need to impose any theology on those gathered — I simply led them through ritual steps including writing a note to a dead one; all the notes are burned at the end of the service. I’ve been performing it annually ever since; it has its place in the UU spiritual smorgasbord.


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