We only come to sleep, only to dream. 
It is not true, 
it is not true that we come to live on this earth! 
We become as spring weeds, 
we grow green and open the petals of our hearts; 
our body is a plant in flower, 
it gives flowers and it dies away. 
Oh, we will go...rejoice! 
I, Netzahualcóyotl, say. 
Does one really live with roots in this earth? 
Not always on this earth, 
only a little while here! 
Even jade breaks; 
just as gold breaks, 
Even the quetzal plumes fall apart: 
Not always on this earth, 
only a little while here! 
(poet and king of Tezcoco 1402-1472) 
I think the thing that most impressed me as a child when visiting Mexico just prior to Las Dias de los Muertos were the trinkets. Candy, bread, cake ... plastic, paper mache, cut out papers, clay, tin ... you name the medium and there be bones there. Celebratory bones, dancing skeletons, grinning little sugar skulls with names on them. The candy skulls were pure sugar, awful, like the stuff on top of birthday cakes. The “toys” were so confusing – such happy little dead things, not scary at all ... articulated marionette skeletons, little hands on chains, skull beads on string, little shin bones in decorated boxes, cards and cartoons with people doing what people do but made of bones ...bones, bones, *smiling* everywhere.

I had gone with my dad, who like so many of his generation had his bigotries . He was Spanish, from Asturias, Spain, not Mexican. This was an important point to him. He didn’t do this “Indian” stuff, but he knew what was up. I was just a kid. He explained it was “their” Halloween decorations. OK, that sufficed for then. We went on to other things and home to our own Halloween so I didn’t see the real Celebration.

This is not Halloween, The Day of the Dead is the time the dead return to the realm of the living to celebrate in joy with their friends and relatives. It is the time to remember the dead and to pay them respect … BY PICNICING ON THEIR GRAVES! Wrap your ethnocentric brain around that and accept it. This is a happy time. My impression as a child of happy skeletons was true. The living welcome the dead back and believe the dead are happy to be visiting. There is no spookiness, no scary ghoulishness, and no fear.

El Dia de los Muertos is currently celebrated as a 2 day Holiday. It may have developed along a parallel track with Halloween but each history of an indigenous culture and a usurping culture is different. El Dia de los Muertos is uniquely Mexican. Like so many Christian conquering armies , the Spanish Conquistadors (including my ancestor, the blood loving Pedro Menendez, seeker of the fountain of youth in St. Augustine) blended and minimized what they could not suppress. The month long Aztec celebration was moved from July/August to Nov 1 and Nov 2 to correspond with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. To the ancient Aztecs skulls were a symbol of death and rebirth. Death was the awake time, life was just a dream. Now that is an attitude that is difficult to twist into Catholicism and may explain why The Day of the Dead continues today. The presiding goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as "Lady of the Dead," was “believed to have died at birth”. There is still a prominent female skeleton theme to the Day of the Dead, the bony woman, Ms. Baldie, who pops up frequently even in our time. Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec God of Death, “was viewed as a deity who released one from their burdensome life on Earth, passing judgments that rewarded or punished people - not for the way they lived their life; rather, for the way their life came to an end. Life brought a fleeting period of slumber. Death gave birth to a fullness of life.”

“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” - Thornton Wilder

Thanks Dad!

(source of the quote and the poem)

More interesting reading and some great photos and drawings:

http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/ (great overview, wonderful website, has postcards)
www.jumpindogranch.com/holiday/diadelosmuertos2.html (life, death and ripples vs. splashes)
http://www.public.iastate.edu/~rjsalvad/scmfaq/muertos.html (cultural variations)
http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/feature/daydeadindex.html (compilation with photos)
http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/travel/wdevlin/wdbones.html (great “Bony Woman” story)
http://racerelations.about.com/cs/dayofthedea1/ (as all about.com sites good bookmarks)
http://www.mythinglinks.org/DayOfDead.html (more interesting, annotated bookmarks)
http://csumb.edu/events/dead/vocabulary.html (plain old vocabulary lesson)
http://www.compostcoven.org/cnl/diane1087apple.html (Wiccan site that mentions topic)
http://www.arts-history.mx/posada/h3.html (Posada reproductions)
http://www.cis.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1994/3/94.03.03.x.html#a (curriculum for 4th or 5th grade GT students on Aztec religion) – very interesting reading , does that make me a kid again? This is pretty advanced stuff for grade schoolers, even “GT” but it is from Yale) *wink*