Friday, October 26, 2012

The Day of the Dead

This post is cursed!

I wanted to be seasonal with this post. After all, Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays - even if it doesn't get us a day off. It's not the easiest topic to mesh with historical westerns, so forgive me if I stretch the point a bit.

The Celtic Connection

Hallowed Evening has it's roots in Samhain, the Celtic new year. It makes sense that the end of the harvest, when the trees dropped their leaves and plants withered from the frost, that the year should also die. Out of the death of the old year, a new year would gestate over winter to be born in spring. At the the death of the year, the Celts believed that the living world would overlap with the land of the dead. It was an opportunity for the living to connect with loved ones that had died, but it was also a time when the wrong, angry or just malicious spirits could have revenge on the living.

Most of our modern traditions come out of that belief. We carve pumpkins into Jack-o-lanterns (originally turnips were used) to scare away evil spirits. We dress up because our ancestors believed that we could trick the dead by wearing a disguise. Trick-or-treating had it's roots in "souling". Poor children would go door to door saying prayers for the dead in exchange for cakes.

The trouble is, Celtic cowboys notwithstanding, I've found nothing to suggest that Hallowe'en was a celebrated in the old west.

Down Mexico Way

Just as I was about to throw in the towel, I remembered Día de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a big celebration. As with Samhain, the dead are thought to come back to visit the living, but instead of hiding out, the Mexicans throw their dearly departed a big party. Best of all, in Texas at least, Dia de los Muertos travelled to the American West.

The roots of the Mexican festival go back to the Aztecs and Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the dead. When the Spanish conquered Mexico, their missionaries forced the indigenous people to adopt Christianity. They adapted the local customs so Mictecacihuatl's festival was blended with All Saints Day and Día de los Muertos was the result.

My favorite icon associated with the Day of the Dead, has its roots in ancient history, but only dates back to 1910. That's when artist José Guadalupe created La Calavera Catrina - The Elegant Skull. Since then, decorated skull images have become a popular addition to the celebration (not to mention t-shirts, notebooks and body art.) 

And so, in the tradition of Día de los Muertos, I give you the La Vaquera Catrina, The Beautiful Cowgirl.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Day of the Dead is certainly southwestern. Creepy, but fascinating images can be found in Hispanic shops this time of year. Good post.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Thanks Caroline! I was a bit worried about this one. The idea seemed so simple when I started.

Paty Jager said...

Alison, Interesting! While not a zombie fan, LOL, I do find it interesting how other cultures have a day of the dead and Americans make it into a day where kids get candy.

Alison E. Bruce said...

It was the candy part that was the sticking point for me. (Yeah, I know, bad.) The trick or treating grew out of poor urban children begging for food - wasn't something you'd do if you lived on a farm or ranch.

Lyn Horner said...

LOL! I love the Beautiful Cowgirl! Great info about how Halloween grew out of ancient traditions.

Jacquie Rogers said...

This year we have a knight, a werewolf, a soldier, and... you guessed it, a cowboy. So they didn't trick-or-treat in the 19th Century, but those cowboys are making up for it now. :)

Meg said...

LOL, Jacquie! Cowboys were pretty popular costumes back in my day. Love the historical info, Alison! The Beautiful Cowgirl looks cool!