Day of the Dead

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

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Halloween once marked the beginning of the holiday season that stretched from October’s end to the New Year.

When I finally became a homeowner in the summer of 1997, I felt free to decorate and celebrate with abandon. I dressed up for Halloween to hand out candies and had pumpkins and lights.

And it only became more awesome when Will and I became a couple the following fall and the tradition of building and working the Jaycee Haunted House began.

I was a Corpse Bride long before Tim Burton thought of it. In a tattered white gown with a purple-streaked black wig, skeleton mask and black leggings, I sprayed my exposed arms with white hairspray and slipped skeletal gloves over my hands to slink along the hallways of a pitch dark maze, scaring the bejeezus out of teenagers.

Hand me a chainsaw (defanged, naturally) and I floored them literally. There is nothing like that revving roar to turn people around and create a terrific panic.

By the time Will was too sick to notice Halloween, there was Dee to consider. While our friends reared their kids in the corridors of the construction of the haunted house and had them running about during the running, Dee has always been too .. tender … for that. Her dad’s illness aside, we would have ended that tradition anyway.

So this naturally shifted to fairy and princess costumes and Trick or Treat. Beggar’s Night it was called in Des Moines. An odd tradition of kids telling jokes for treats and the celebration was never held on the 31st. Don’t ask me why. I tried to ascertain the rationale for shifting it to the 30th but never heard the same explanation and as nearly as I could figure it grew out of a mixture of the rabid Christian culture and a misguided notion that teens would be less inclined toward mayhem if it wasn’t the actual Halloween date.

And then we came to Canada.

The first year I suggested decorating the yard as a cemetery, but Rob wasn’t keen even though he’d once endured the scorn of his Bible thumping Kansas neighbors over a fake cemetery he erected in their yard when the older girls were a bit older than Dee.

Shelley, I am told, loved Halloween and dressing up in elaborate costumes. She’s passed this along to both Edie and Mick. This year, for example, Mick designed and sewed costumes based on Alice in Wonderland. And Mick always had multiple costumes a year as they make the rounds of the various to-do’s in the city.

Dee also has a box of costumes that she adds to every year. She is a huge fan of dress up play anyway and I have done nothing to squelch this instinct. Her scariest costume is a ghost number that I picked up at Walmart a few days after Dad died in ’08 and we Trick or Treated old school suburbia with DNOS, BIL, our two and a gaggle of neighborhood kids.

Day of the Dead, however, is not Halloween. Even Halloween is a corruption if original intent counts for anything.

The 7th grade team I worked with in middle school got it into their heads to construct a cooperative unit around Day of the Dead one year. One of our teachers was enamoured of the Hispanic tradition and being a former nun had more affinity to the November 1st Christian observance than the 31st.

At any rate, we weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. Our population had a sizable number of extremely wing-nut Christians. One of the local churches actually bordered scarily on “cult”, so my co-worker pushed the Day of the Dead idea, which is ironic because it is more objectionable than costumes and candies on many levels.

I was lukewarm.

First, it’s a tradition that is not symbolic and one really needs to be raised in it to not find it distasteful and/or morbid. North Americans are death fearing to the point that most of us see death as a personal affront that simply should not happen in our modern times. That death is the natural progression and that much of the early death that occurs is due to modern times collateral damage – we simply don’t want to acknowledge.

Second, I loathed dealing with the family trauma that bubbled like toxic sludge just below the surface of most of our students’ lives. Parents who would be skeptical or hostile and require much coddling and cajoling* also factored into my reluctance.

Finally, Day of the Dead is religious. There is no getting around it and we were a public school. Separation of church and state and all that entails. If we weren’t studying the traditions surrounding death in all cultures in addition to Day of the Dead then what we were doing was highly questionable.

But, we did it anyway.

And it was a minor disaster that dredged up emotional muck, angered some parents, offended the über-Christians and was a small joke to a small segment of the students, who insisted on honoring their dead pets.

Traditions that honor the departed are widespread around the world. The more death-fearing a culture, however, the less likely one is to find them. What one notices instead is a fixation on the grisly and horrific.

When I was young, November 1st was the anti-climax. We went to mass. It was boring in comparison to the evening before which meant running the neighborhoods in costume with hordes of other children, trailed by uninterested parents or older siblings. In my family, the dead were considered honored through masses and living our lives to their full potential. They also endured through the wonderful memories passed along through stories.

So here is one for you:

My dad and his siblings had a couple of horses they shared between them. Co-ownership was not unusual. The family was poor and there were five children. For example, they had a single pair of skis that they took turns with out in the pasture until my dad’s oldest brother collided with a pig and broke the poles.

One of the horse’s was a gray mare named Blue. Dad’s youngest brother, who died when he was 39, took Blue one day when he and a neighbor were heading to the creek – probably the one at my now departed as well Great-Uncle’s place down the road. When they arrived and dismounted, my uncle left Blue standing by a tree.

“Aren’t you going to tie him up?” his friend asked.

“Nah,” he replied and continued walking.

The friend ran to catch up, casting a glance back at the horse which appeared to be content and uninterested in wandering off.

“Well, aren’t you afraid she’ll run off?

To which my uncle said, “Blue’s blind. She don’t even know we’ve left.”

There is no record of what the friend thought about having traversed a good mile up and down hilly fields and narrow dirt paths on a blind horse that my uncle barely bothered to “steer”.

A happy and peaceful day of the dead to you and yours.

2 responses to “Day of the Dead

  1. i think i’ll have to use that ‘defanged’ chainsaw at work. no, i don’t care that Halloween is over. should be fun. wish me luck and check the newspapers for the story!

  2. as a teen, i LOVED the Jaycee Haunted Houses. my older brother was a master at effects, but by the time i was old enough to work with him, he’d moved on to life with small children and had to give it up…

    corpse bride with chainsaw? if that isn’t somewhere on your resume, it really should be…

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