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Day of the Dead

The theme of death has always been popular in Mexican art. "Dead" toys, art and crafts pervade Mexico during late October and early November surrounding the Day of the Dead (the Dia de los Muertos) celebration. This festival is a synthesis of Christian and Indian beliefs in which villagers await the return of their loved-one's souls. On October 31, the angelitos, the souls of children who died, are believed to arrive, followed by the souls of the saints on November 1, All Saints' Day, and the souls of adults on November 2, All Souls' Day. Elaborate and brightly colored altars containing food and other offerings are made for the ancestral souls. Streets are vibrantly decoratedSkeleton figures of terra-cotta, paper, candy, tin and other materials and various other representations of death are seen in every market during the Day of the Dead.

Sugar paste, marzipan and bread dough are used to create edible skeletons that can be eaten or placed on the household altar. Children make their own coffin and skeleton toys out of paper, foil, chickpeas and other readily available materials, or buy ones made out of clay or cardboard. Statues and figurines depict skeletons involved in the tasks of everyday life, illustrating all of life's virtues and vices, and many scenes juxtapose the skeleton head with religious symbols such as the cross. Early twentieth-century artist José ‡uadalupe Posada created engravings that have become representative of the Day of the Dead celebration, specifically his portrayal of Catrina.

During this three-day festival, ending November 2, death is "alternately mocked and romanticized by young and old alike." Children play with skeleton toys and parades are held, but families also visit cemeteries, carrying flowers, incense burners, lit candles, food and drink to the graves of their dead loved ones. Bertram Wolfe described the Mexican attitude toward death as "mordant-reckless-festive-friendly-familiar," an attitude that is certainly embodied in the well-loved and widely celebrated holiday of the Day of the Dead.

--Lisa Graff

Bibliography

Espejel, Carlos. Mexican Folk Crafts (Barcelona: Editorial Blume, 1978).

Oettinger, Marion, Jr. Folk Treasures of Mexico (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1990).

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