Victorian Era Catrina Skull Embodies Modern Day of the Dead Celebrations

Celebrate life on the Day of the Dead. It’s that glorious time of year when a gap opens in the flimsy veil between life and death. Like so many holidays, the Day of the Dead (Dia De Los Muertos) is a rich historical blend of cultural and religious beliefs and practices. It is not the same as Halloween although close on the calendar with similar themes. The Day of the Dead is a three-day celebration akin to a family reunion with the dead. Jose Guadalupe Posada’s elegant Catrina Skull (la Calavera Catrina) with her Victorian Era hat has become an icon of modern day celebrations.

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery adjacent to Paramount Studios in Los Angeles hosts highly spirited Dia de los Muertos festivities for all ages. All are welcome, alive or dead. Imagine spooky fun, colorful folkloric art and great music wrapped in a sacred observance that captures a comfortable relationship with life and death. Many of the photos in this post are from the 2017 event. If you haven’t already, put this one on your bucket list.

Following are six things to know before you go.

#1 Jose Guadalupe Posada Was Printmaker to the Mexican People

Jose Guadalupe Posada (February 2, 1852 – January 20, 1913) was a Mexican artist known for his socially satirical prints, engravings and drawings. His local folkloric scenes were known as calaveras, from the Spanish word for skulls. His work illustrated affordable literature for the people published primarily by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo.

Among other issues his work satirized the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and bourgeois lifestyle of the pre-revolutionary era. French artist Jean Charlot called Posada the “printmaker to the Mexican people.”

#2 Jose Guadalupe Posada’s Catrina Skull Satirized Bourgeois Lifestyle

In a lifetime of extraordinary work, La Catrina has become one of Posada’s most iconic images. His figure of a female skull wearing an elegant broad-brimmed hat of the Victorian Era was created 1910 and his death in 1913. She was originally titled “Calavera Garbancera, a nickname for Mexican people who adopted European style.

Among her many a.k.a.’s are Elegant Skull, Dapper Skeleton, Skeleton Lady, and Skull of the Female Dandy. Because Day of the Dead honors death with a blend of reverence and humor, she is represented in wildly diverse styles ranging from deeply creepy to sexy, funny and cute.

#3 Diego Rivera Gave Posada’s Skull A Full Body

Although Jose Guadalupe Posada was popular in his time, he died in poverty and was largely forgotten by the end of his days. In the true spirit of Dia De Los Muertos, his career blossomed after his death. French artist Jean Charlot saw Posada’s work in the 1920s thanks to another fan, Diego Rivera. Both gave Posada the publicity necessary to be honored as a great folk artist.

Posadas’s original Catrina was known, but Diego Rivera gave her popularity a huge boost. In his 1947 mural, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon Along Central Alameda (Sueno de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central) Rivera gave Posada’s Catrina a new lease on life with a full body in Victorian garb.  In the famous painting, the boy holding her bony hand is Rivera himself. Frida Kahlo stands beside them.

#4 Day of the Dead Altars Invite The Dead For A visit

People create elaborately decorate altars (ofrendas) that include elements of earth, wind, water and fire. They frequently include favorite foods, beverages, candles, photos, and sometimes belongings of the deceased they wish to honor.

Favorite flowers of the deceased are often used to decorate altars.  Marigolds play a symbolic role in Dia de los Muertos as they entice spirits to spend a little time among the living. Trails of marigolds are sometimes spread as a kind of map for spirits to find their way to an altar.

#5 Sugar Skulls Sweeten the Invitation

Sugar skulls remain a favorite Day of the Dead gifts and are often used to decorate altars. They remind the living of their own mortality. These confections (Alfeñiques) are molded from sugar paste. They probably originated in Italy. Some historians believe they became part of the Day of the Dead celebrations as early as the 17th century. They take on many forms, but Catrina is one of the most popular. 

#6 Day of the Dead Roots Run Deep

The original celebration dates back 2,500 to 3,000 years to pre-Columbian cultures of Meso-America. The Aztec festival to honor the the goddess of death is believed to have taken place in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, around August. Celebrations lasted for an entire month.

As with early traditions around the world, the Day(s) of the Dead eventually became Christianized to coincide with Allhallowtide.

October 31: All Soul’s Evening a.k.a. All Hollow’s Eve = Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos or Dia de Muertos).

November 1:   Feast of All Saints = the day to honor deceased children (Dia de los Inocentes)

November 2: All Souls Day, the day to honor all dead = Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos or Dia de Muertos).

Celebrate life on the Day of the Dead!

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