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In addition to the colorful costumes gracing campus last weekend for Halloween were the artistic trappings of another holiday: El Dia de los Muertos
The holiday, whose name means “The Day of the Dead” in English, is not as morbid as many assume. Rather, it is a commemoration of those who have departed and celebration of continuing life--—often through visual and performance art.
Raudel Yanez ’06, president of Harvard’s Latino student group RAZA, described the holiday as “celebrating death not in a sad way, but in a joyful way.” The festivities are a way of “recognizing death as a part of us and a part of life.”
The holiday has a complex history. It was originally founded in prehispanic Mexico to honor the dead and children, but, since then, has flourished under many different permutations. As a result, observances differ remarkably by region and levels of urbanization.
Many forums at Harvard celebrated the day. Adams House hosted a party last Friday, at which Mariachi Veritas and Ballet Folklorico performed and students read poetry in recognition of the deceased.
At the center of almost all the festivities is an altar filled with gifts to the deceased. The gifts’ variety offers a reflection of the University’s contemporary cultural melting pot, with Aztec and Christian symbols sitting side by side.
Organizers also brought specialty foods into Adams House, including traditional sweet bread associated with the holiday. Nancy Shish, mother of Senovio K. Shish ’05 said she was very impressed by the authenticity of the feast. “I haven’t seen rolls like that since I lived in Mexico 20 years ago,” she said.
The various performances were meant to emphasize the day as a valuable opportunity to celebrate life. “We’re going to have a great time today,” said Martha I. Casillas ’05, co–director of Ballet Folklorico. She said the dancing and festive atmosphere were chosen as a means of remembering the ancestors through their rewarding lives.
Casillas said she associated the holiday very much with her family. However, since coming to Harvard, the connection she has developed with her peers has been a comforting alternative. “RAZA has become a substitute for family, so it’s like sharing it with my family,” she said.
Festivities for Dia de los Muertos took place at the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) this past week. There was an altar dedication ceremony featuring a room full of decorations and community members in the CSWR common room Friday.
Two altars were dedicated and people placed pictures of their deceased loved ones atop them. The event was geared toward those who didn’t celebrate the holiday, with coordinators giving a brief history of the holiday’s significance.
Coordinator of events and programs at the CSWR Rebecca Kline described the event as both “a devotional experience educational one.” Several Divinity school students and members of their community led a sharing circle to describe the meaning of the holiday and the events to take place.
Kline said she was pleased overall. The event was entirely student coordinated, led by Divinity School student Maria Christina Vlassidas, and the CSWR has been trying to “encourage students at the Divinity school to use our space both for their own worship and for others to learn about our different religious customs and beliefs,” she said.
The altars full of gifts to the dead were left on display throughout the weekend and open for observation on Nov. 1 and 2, the two days on which the holiday is traditionally celebrated. People from all religious affiliations were encouraged to bring their own religious items as well as pictures of their deceased loved ones to offer up on the altars
There were some interesting results. Pictures of deceased relatives and friends filled each of the colorfully decorated tables, along with various religious icons, including images of the Blessed Mother of Christianity, Aztec prayer offerings and flowers, and a large wooden dreidel.
Next to one of the altars was a song book opened to the page with a song called “Dia de los Muertos.” Translated into English the song’s lyrics were, “On November first and second/ we honor those who have departed/ with music and with prayer/ we celebrate the Day of the Dead.”
The Peabody Museum featured a special Dia de los Muertos fete this past Tuesday evening, offering traditional Latin American refreshments and music. Performances were held not far from the Peabody museum on the same evening at the nearby Geological Lecture Hall.
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