Day of the Dead imagery can be traditional, or stylised, as this image of a skull shows.
The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is a national holiday and festival of remembrance observed throughout Mexico and in more recent times, around the world.
Dating back at least hundreds of years to an Aztec event dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead, the celebration focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died and commemorates the transitory return to Earth of deceased loved ones.
Traditionally, private altars called ofrendas are built and decorated with sugar skulls and marigolds, while gifts of favourite foods and beverages of the departed, as well as their pictures and former possessions, are left as offerings of respect. The scent of the marigolds is believed to entice the dead back to this annual reunion, and altars are decorated lavishly with hundreds, if not thousands of the flowers.
Prior to the Spanish colonisation of Mexico in the 16th century, the Día de Muertos took place at the beginning of summer in the month of August, but was moved to October 31 to November 2 in order to coincide with the Roman Catholic Church’s festival of All Hallows, consisting of All Hallows' Eve, Hallowmas, and All Souls' Day. In fact, the Day of the Dead was not much celebrated in the north of Mexico until relatively recently because there was little Meso-American influence in this region and it was perceived as a largely pagan celebration. In the 1960’s the Mexican government made the Día de Muertos a national holiday in an attempt to unify national pride and reinforce the political and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities, however many families in northern Mexico are more inclined to celebrate All Saints Day on 2nd November, in line with the practices of the Catholic Church.
Day of the Dead festival in the centre of Tlalpan. Photocredit:Luisroj96
The customs and activities used to celebrate the Día de Muertos are not universal and vary from town to town. However, some aspects are typical. The skull or calavera is a common theme reproduced in chocolate, sugar candy, masks, paper mache and terracotta, as are the marigolds seen at every gravesite. Traditional foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes and often decorated with white icing to look like twisted bones. Rosaries and candles are also associated with the celebrations, as are images of the Virgin Mary. Some families build small household shrines and Government offices usually display at least one altar as a display of national pride. Short poems called calaveras (skulls), witty epitaphs and funny anecdotes of the recently deceased are also published by friends and in newspapers. José Guadalupe Posada, a satirical political commentator of the late 19thcentury, created a figure he called La Calavera Catrina (the Elegant Skull) as a parody of the typical Mexican upper-class female, and this famous female with skeleton face has become indelibly associated with the Día de Muertos.
The celebration of Día de Muertos has spread throughout the world, absorbed into other traditions for honouring the dead and now especially associated with Halloween and the festival of All Hallows. In Mexico, mainly within the larger cities, older customs are being displaced and children celebrate with Trick-or-Treating in much the same way Americans do. In other parts of the world Day of the Dead imagery has become common. Some people believe possessing Day of the Dead items can bring good luck; for others it simply represents a fascination with a culture rich with visual imagery, while many see it as a means of accepting and celebrating the inevitable cycle of life and death.
Addendum: The Smithsonian Institution, in collaboration with the University of Texas at El Paso and Second Life, have created a Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum and accompanying multimedia e-book: Día de los Muertos: Day of the Dead. The project's website explains the origins of some of the customary practices surrounding the Day of the Dead, including background beliefs and the origin of the offrenda.
Linda has a Honours degree in Marine Biology and a PhD in Ecology from the University of NSW, Australia. She has travelled extensively and is a passionate writer on subjects as diverse as the role played by women throughout history, tribal communities and their customs, symbology and ethnology, talismans and their history. Occasionally she also writes about her travel experiences, her new life on a 25 acres in the Northern Rivers region of northern Australia and her black miniature poodle Phoenix. She is currently writing her first book on talismans.
In 1989 my father Bernard packed in his house painting business and set off for two years on a backpacking trek to the remotest corners of the world. When he finally arrived in the oasis city of Kashgar, China, he was so impressed with its history that he decided to start a new life collecting and selling exotic goods from all over the world. For 2000 years the legendary city of Kashgar was a melting pot of ideas and a key trading post on the historic Silk Road. It was this unique combination of philosophy and trade that my father wanted to recreate at home.
Starting in markets in 1991, he opened his first store in the Sydney suburb of Newtown in 1994. I gave up my own career as a government scientist to join him in 2000 and soon convinced my partner Ian to join us in what was to become the Family Business.
Today our version of Kashgar stocks a hugely diverse range of furniture, rugs, textiles, antiques, handicrafts and jewellery sourced from over twenty different countries including India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Our collection includes contemporary and tribal silver and gold jewellery, a unique range of headhunting curios, antique Buddhist relics and a collection of one-off necklaces, earrings and bracelets that I design and create myself using the beads and jewellery making techniques of ethnic minorities from around the globe.
Kashgar is a philosophy as well as a store. We are committed to supporting traditional artisans and small village communities by selling authentic handcrafted goods which are personally collected by us. By supporting traditional methods of design and production we hope to encourage local cottage industries which have a low impact on the environment and help ethnic minorities maintain their self-sufficiency into the 21st Century. We are particularly committed to assisting women around the world and to this end have worked with several organisations including the Hua Bin Women's Union of Vietnam, the East Timorese Women's Association and Tikondane in Zambia. Time honoured means of craftsmanship and traditional ways of life are disappearing as people all over the world give up their identity in favour of jeans and T-shirts. We see our trade as a means of staving off the inevitable encroachment of the 21st century, assisting communities to decide for themselves which parts of the western world they wish to incorporate (medicine, education) and which they wish to reject (prostitution, drug production, begging and servitude to warlords). We encourage our customers to think of the handicrafts and artifacts they buy from us as an investment: a piece of history and a way of life that may soon be gone forever.
Kashgar has recently closed its retail outlet and gone completely online.
In the past our pieces appeared in many movies including The Hobbit, Mission Impossible 2, Queen of the Damned, Scooby Doo, Moulin Rouge and Wolverine, and in many televisions series, as well as in plays, commercials and exhibitions. We've found special pieces for individual customers as well as for film sets, event management companies, hotels, businesses, consulates and embassies. The uniqueness of our stock means that we are also very appealing to interior and fashion designers with a taste for the exotic.
There is something for everyone at Kashgar - collectors, the curious, those looking for a special present or for something unique to adorn the home. Most of our items are one-off specialties; other pieces we only stock in small quantities so as to continuously offer a wide and ever-changing range of interesting products. We are also packed with ideas for decorating home and work premises that will challenge your established concepts of design and storage.
Please enjoy - Linda Heaphy
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