Dia de los Muertos

Dancers  with Face Painting and in Costume at Dia de los Muertos

Dancers in Costume at Dia de los Muertos

Even though Halloween is not one of my favorite American holidays, and I honestly do not “get it,” I can understand and connect to the Latin American tradition of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It reminds me of the Austrian tradition of thinking of those that passed and visiting the graves on November 1. As far back as I can remember, November 1 has meant spending the morning in usually cold and foggy graveyards and wearing the new winter coat for the first time of the year. November 1 is a holiday in Austria, and since schools, offices, and stores are closed, there is no excuse not to be at the graves of those who have passed. For weeks, graves have been prepped for the big day with new plantings and freshly cut flowers, a new lantern, and of course plenty of candles. The graveyard on that day turns also into a place to meet up with everyone who has moved away since each grave is usually surrounded by family and friends even from far away.

Cards to the Dead on Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Cards to the Dead on Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Altar at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Altar at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Statue at Dia de los Muertos Celebrations

Statue at Dia de los Muertos Celebrations

 

This is a tradition that is very foreign to most Americans; they do not really seem to spend much time at graveyards. But the Latin American holiday of Dia de los Muertos has the same basic principle – to honor the dead. True, the Austrian celebration on All Saints Day is a little more somber and quieter, but the idea is the same. Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and celebrations of the lives of the deceased with food, drink, and parties. Families set up altars for the deceased in their houses; photos, favorite foods and drinks, pan de muerto, marigolds and more are placed on the altars. Families celebrate  with food in graveyards and decorate the graves. The deceased become part of the community again as they are awakened from their sleep.

Dancers at the Dia de Los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Dancers at the Dia de Los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Since Sacramento, CA is so diverse, celebrations of Dia de los Muertos have become quite common. This year’s celebrations included many altars set up by families for the deceased as well as a parade and performances of traditional Mexican dances. It was not quite the same for me as visiting the graves of loved ones on All Saints Day in Austria, but I felt more at home at this celebration than I ever do on Halloween with its costumes and sweets.

Close-Up of Altar at Dia de los Muertos

Close-Up of Altar at Dia de los Muertos

Parade at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Parade at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

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Halloween

Sparkly Skull Decorations for Halloween

Sparkly Skull Decorations for Halloween

I am fascinated by Halloween – not so much by the tradition of dressing up and going Trick-or-Treating but by the commercial aspect of it. I know that may sound odd, but every year I am surprised by how many Halloween-themed products exist. When I think I have seen it all, I come across a product that I would have never thought needed to be “re-themed” for Halloween. The best example is the skull measuring spoons currently on sale at World Market. I do not buy the items, but I love browsing the stores. After Halloween, serious decorators need to prepare for Thanksgiving and then Christmas and New Year’s – where do all these decorations get stored??

All Items Can Be Themed for Halloween It Seems

All Items Can Be Themed for Halloween It Seems

Even though I love the decorations, I am not a fan of Halloween. I thought I would become excited once I was in the U.S. and everyone else was celebrating Halloween. It did not work that way. I do not get the point of sending kids to other people’s houses to basically beg and threaten; yes, the phrase “trick or treat” is a thinly veiled threat if we boil it down – “give me a treat or I will play a trick on you.” Presumably, most kids do not even think about what they are saying, and I have never heard of any tricks being played on those who do not provide candy, but it does not change the meaning of the words.

Bags of Vampire Fangs in Stores for Halloween - Who Needs 15 Fangs Though?

Bags of Vampire Fangs in Stores for Halloween – Who Needs 15 Fangs Though?

My rant most likely seems odd to most Americans, and I think my attitude has much to do with my lack of childhood memories about this holiday. So often I hear Americans tell nostalgic stories about their first Halloween memories; I do not experience any nostalgia, and I guess I can theoretically understand the attraction of the holiday but never really “get it.” Surprisingly, Halloween has also become popular in Austria; even though there is no tradition of Halloween in Austria, American movies and T.V. shows have featured Halloween so often and in such enticing ways that Austrian kids have started to copy trick-or-treating to the surprise and bafflement of many who open doors on that evening.

Halloween Decorations

Halloween Decorations

Meet a Saint at the Abbey in Schlierbach, Austria

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St. Julianus in the abbey church in Schlierbach

The visit to the Abbey in Schlierbach and the bones of Saint Julianus reminded me of an article about death that my students had to read for a response essay. The article was called “Death Is Having a Moment” and discussed the emergence of Death Salons around the Western World – see link to article: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/death-is-having-a-moment/280777/

The article mentioned a talk about bejeweled skeletons, especially popular in Bavarian, Austrian, and Swiss cultures it seems. A topic that was not surprising to me really shocked some students; most could not imagine what such a bejeweled skeleton could look like. A search online for jeweled skeletons provided images, plenty of examples of splendid pieces of art decorating the bones of mostly saints (for example, see this article with detailed pictures of skeletons: http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/05/world/gallery/beauty-from-the-crypt/ ).

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Interior of the abbey in Schlierbach

I did not expect to see a skeleton/saint in Schlierbach; it was not advertised in any way I noticed. But there he was, right up front but to the side of the main altar, not as bejeweled as some of the more spectacular examples online, but still impressive. None of the Austrians visiting the church with me paid much attention to the saint. It made me wonder whether Austrians are more open to discuss death and accept death as a natural part of life and culture as indicated by the article.

For an excellent online media tour of the abbey, go to: http://www.stift-schlierbach.at/fileadmin/panoramatour/index.html

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Steeple of the church in Schlierbach