I love visiting Mexico. The people are so friendly, the food is delicious, I get to use my Spanish, and on top of all that, I can see Mexican artists make ceramics, weave all manner of gorgeous cloth, work metal or leather, and create other beautiful traditional crafts. With Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) starting today, my mind is wandering both to Mexico and my favorite Mexican artists — Talavera Vazquez, Gorky González, Capelo, and Angélica Escarcega. I have heard so much about the colorful festivities surrounding Day of the Dead and have always wanted to experience the nation-wide celebration in person!
What is the Day of the Dead exactly? First off, it’s actually two days (November 1 and 2) during which people remember and celebrate ancestors and friends who have passed away. This celebration has roots in Aztec, Purepechas, and Totonacs traditions as well as the Catholic practice of All Souls Day. People visit their relatives’ graves on the first day, decorating them with flowers and candles. It’s a sort of picnic in the cemetery, with friends and family sharing stories about their loved ones buried there. It’s a celebration of the dead, as well as a celebration of the community they helped create.
These graveside picnics usually feature tamales and pan de muerto, a special bread. Bakers hide a toy skeleton inside (usually plastic) and it’s good luck if you bite into it. Sweets are another important tradition, with cookies, chocolate and sugar skulls. By biting into the skull shapes, people symbolically “take a bite of death” and inoculate themselves against the fear of death.
Another important aspect of the Day of the Dead are the intricate altars constructed and dedicated to deceased relatives. These are often decorated with yellow and orange marigolds and/or chrysanthemums; yellow is the Aztec color for autumn as it’s the season when nature begins to die. There are both home and public altars, where people leave offerings of favorite foods of their loved ones who have passed (candy skulls are a popular choice), photographs, and religious amulets. The altars show the cycle of life and death as part of the human experience. Day of the Dead celebrations also can include processions (like this one in San Francisco), music, or dancing; but the main idea is to celebrate life and death together.
While I won’t be in Mexico to celebrate the Day of the Dead this year, I will be surrounded by the festive pottery of Talavera Vazquez. I’m especially inspired to bring out my Vazquez pottery this time of year — the bold beauty reflects traditional Mexican decorations and the bright colors evoke the change of seasons. While you might decorate for many different fall events (Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and Thanksgiving come to mind), putting Mexican artist ceramics like a Vazquez pottery vase or ginger jar into the mix makes for the perfect fall touch. Felicidades!
Day of the Dead altar image courtesy of Ute Hagen.
Candy skulls image courtesy of Glen Van Etten.