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Mary Cassatt: American Bohemian

Celebrating Death With Happiness and Joy

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Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) is a national Mexican holiday where families and friends gather to remember those who have passed away.

The origin of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico can be traced back to pagan cultures as old as 3000 years. On this occasion, Mexicans react to death with happiness and joy, deflecting their fears by mocking death. Although it has been integrated with Catholicism, its Aztec roots are revealed in the use of skulls.

The celebration takes place after Halloween, on November 1-2, in conjunction with the Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. In observance of this meaningful holiday, families and friends honor the deceased and spirits by creating altars complete with a picture of the deceased, small gifts and offerings of food, sugar skulls and marigolds.

The first day is devoted to the children and to mourning the departed. The second day, the attention turns to the adults. In the afternoon, everyone gathers in the cemeteries to decorate the graves and celebrate life. The day’s emotional and cathartic festivities end with a parade along streets strewn with perforated paper decorations, flowers, candy skeletons, sugar skulls and a “Vaya Con Dios” until next year.

Jose Guadalupe Posada created a famous print titled Calavera de la Catrina (“skull of the rich woman”) to illustrate the essential truth that death will come for everyone, no matter how well off they are. The striking contrast between the woman’s elaborate costume and her skeleton face has made the image an iconic representation of the Day of the Dead.

Day of the Dead is now widely celebrated throughout Mexico, Latin America and around the world in many cultures. European countries with Roman Catholic heritage, including Portugal, Spain, Italy, Poland, Ireland, etc, also treat All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day as holidays.


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