The Day of the Dead and Aztec tradition

Until recently, the Mexican Day of the Dead was something I’d only read about in old Ray Bradbury stories. More recently, it’s become an artsy event for urban Californians, and this year we went to the San Jose Art Museum for their Day of the Dead festival.

One of the highlights for us was making candy skulls, because while I’d heard about them, I’d never seen one. When we managed to find free seats at one of the tables, the docent brought us solid sugar skulls, which we were welcome to decorate as we wished with colored frosting, beads, and buttons. Here are ours:


After we’d explored some of the other events (which included making paper flowers, getting stickers from catrinas, and seeing a mariachi band), we went out to coffee. As we passed the basilica which is next to the museum, I noticed they advertised a Day of the Dead exhibit of their own. Peter and Neil weren’t into it, but Kelly and I were curious.

Inside a small hall of the basilica were 5 or 6 big shrines, each with photographs of (presumably) dead people. They were surrounded by colorful skulls, which weren’t only sugar skulls, but also ceramic or plastic. There were plates of fruit or cookies, and in one case, a bottle of tequila, set out, as well as pots of marigolds. In one case, a jaunty skeleton in a suit and hat stood next to a shrine. And all of it was an explosion of color: there were crosses, candles, shiny beads, and scattered flowers, so dense and profuse that you couldn’t focus on any one thing.

Helpfully, the basilica had also set up a plaque explaining the Day of the Dead from the Catholic perspective. It goes back to indigenous pre-Catholic traditions, when the Mexican natives believed the dead would come back to visit during a month between July and August. The Catholic church moved the festival to All Souls’ Day (November 2), and the basilica lets people set up shrines like the ones we saw, and some of the local Catholic churches will hold a special All Soul’s Day mass at a cemetery.

Not surprisingly, Kelly was inspired. I asked one of the docents at the art museum where I could get sugar skulls. He said the museum had made all the skulls for the event themselves with a special mold, but perhaps I could find them at one of our local Mexican grocery stores.

Today, I went to the Mexican grocery store closest to me, which I had nervously been avoiding on the fearful (and wrong) assumption that I needed to speak Spanish to shop there. It was great store, with otherwise hard-to-find groceries at great prices (whole Tilapia for $2/lb.; tamarind sherbert; fresh oxtail; Oaxacan cheese!) But the Day of the Dead was not what this store was about. I asked one of the grocers about them, who said they didn’t sell them, but maybe I could find them at Lucky’s (a local American grocery chain.) Hmm. I did find some pastries behind a dancing skeleton sticker which I presumed to be pastries meant to be placed on a Day of the Dead shrine, but I could be wrong:

And in the households section, among all the veladora candles, I found 3 different designs, each in honor of of “Saint Death.”


As it would happen, just on Friday, Neil and I had watched Engineering an Empire: the Aztecs, and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities. While the program reported how the Aztecs had managed to build not only large temples, but also cement causeways in a lake and on swampy land, as well as how they developed an ingenious aqueduct, it couldn’t help but note that the Aztecs were into blood. They were really, really into death and blood. And from what I know of modern Mexico, the conquistadors (who weren’t really the most pacifistic people themselves) didn’t quite manage to stamp it out.

The Day of the Dead celebrates death in a way modern Christianity really doesn’t. It ends up being beautiful and colorful and shiny, much like the Aztecs must have seen it. And the Santa Muerte candle had a prayer on it on the back (in English and Spanish) which doesn’t actually make any reference to God or Jesus, and it sounds like a nasty way to punish your enemies. Is Santa Muerte an Aztec goddess revived in faux Catholic guise? In any case, Peter told me she’s popular with the drug smugglers of Mexico, who may themselves be the modern version of the ancient Aztec race.

This gringa will never really know, but I’m glad I got to make sugar skulls this year.

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