It is happening this coming weekend, Saturday, October 25, 2014, on Industrial Street in downtown Denton. Día de los Muertos. Day of the dead.
The evidence is everywhere. Orange lights adorn houses. Pumpkins are piled by front porches beside hay bales and smiling scarecrows. Spider webs, bats, witches, and skeletons decorate yards and trees all in preparation for Halloween night when little costumed trick-or-treaters will ring doorbells, sing-song “trick or treat!” and hold out bags for sweet rewards.
Halloween is one of those holidays, like many, that is a collection of pieces from many cultures and may eras, a mish-mash we commemorate, usually without awareness of why. The name is a term derived from shortening the name “All Hallows Eve.” It is the eve of All Saints Day and Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Many modern day festivities have evolved from Mexican culture. But its basically spiritual roots date back some 4,000 years. Over millennia and myriad cultural influences, its history is nothing short of complicated.
Day of the Dead may sound morbid at first, but it is actually a celebration of life, at least according to Mexican-Catholic tradition, which was the primary source of introduction to the United States. Families gather to remember those who have passed, visit gravesites and celebrate lives well lived. Tradition holds that during these special days, spirits of those passed actually join in the celebration. The happy skeletons dominating Halloween in modern culture are brought forward from the ancient practice of adorning skulls to represent beloved souls as they were most content in life, acknowledging the natural circle of life and quelling fear of death.
Celtic Day of the Dead/Halloween history is embedded in agriculture, hence pumpkins, hay, scarecrows and other harvest-like decorum. For them, these days celebrated the end of harvest season and the transition to winter. They believed that this transition from reaping to rest was also a bridge between life and death.
Trick or treat evolved from the tradition of beggars going door-to-door offering to pray for the souls of those passed in exchange for food. Many of these beggars were children, dressed in costume to hide from unkind and mean spirits that may be about during this time when the lines between life and death are erased. Christianity moves in with the idea that it is benevolent to share with those less fortunate.
If space allowed, this column could go on for pages about the many nuances of various cultures and religions that have culminated in what is today celebrated as Halloween and Day of the Dead. The two are often synonymous and full of merriment as in Denton’s unique case. As you might imagine, we add some original, independent spice to the event.
Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival is a family event harkening to days gone by when life was simpler and communities created reasons to come together and party. Cooler weather, harvest, Dia de los Muertos, and Halloween, like the hodge-podge of customs described above, are all mixed together in Denton-centric style. Costumes are prevalent, like a preview to Halloween night. Music, dancing, games, food, and drink are the mainstay conduits for a downtown Denton good time.
A definitive original, independent and hilarious highlight in our festivities is the Coffin Races. Words don’t do it justice. You have to see it to believe it.
Capping off Day of the Dead’s fun is a truly Denton-original Cabaret, “Cirque du Horror.” I saw this for the first time last year and was astounded at the artistic talent, 100 percent Denton, assembled for this show. Denton’s own David Pierce wrote, produced, directed, designed and stars in this incredible production that includes an orchestra, actors, music, and dance. Dan’s Silver Leaf is transformed into a world of music and imagination not to be missed during the Day of the Dead festival at 4:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., then again Sunday at 5:00 p.m. and finally on Halloween night at 7:30 p.m.
Whatever your own Day of the Dead or Halloween cultural history, if any at all, this weekend is for youth, or a throw-back to youth. It is a time for imagination, creativity, and care-free fun. It is the pause in the daily grind where, as David Pierce says, “ The average person gets to be, for that one special night, someone - or someTHING else.”
“Happy Day of the Dead” sounds a bit incongruous, but so be it. In Denton, it’s all about life, and that’s a happy thing indeed. Visit www.dentondayofthedeadfestival.com for details.