Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead)

Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead)

By Rick Mikula (Oct. 2017)


One of  my favorite holidays is Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). The mesmerizing combination of macabre costumes, unordinary traditions  and rich heritage make it the perfect “homecoming” celebration for monarch butterflies. Actually it is a dual homecoming for two very different but equally amazing reasons.

Today’s Day of the Dead celebrations have evolved from ancient pre-Columbian rituals that celebrate the deaths of ancestors that had been observed dating back some 2,500–3,000 years. The Aztecs originally celebrated a month long festival during August  to honor  the goddess Mictēcacihuātl  She is called the "Lady of the Dead" and it is believed that she was born, then sacrificed as an infant. As Queen of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, she ruled over the afterlife with her husband Mictlantecuhtli. Her duty is to watch over the bones of the dead and preside over the ancient festivals of the dead. The is why she is usually represented as a skeleton and with  an opened mouth to help her swallow the stars during the day.

The Aztecs also felt that if a warrior died in battle they would be rewarded by be reincarnated as part of the ‘Happy Dead’ and returned in the form a butterfly. The concept was so widely accepted that Aztec men of social rank would often carry bouquets of flowers but mere mortals were not allow to smell the flowers. The fragrance was reserved solely for their fallen heroes.

Over the centuries traditions and activities eventually varied from region to region. For example, in the  Michoacán, the tradition was meant to celebrate a departed child's life rather than that of an adult. In the state of Morelos, families would open their doors to visitors who would present the family with small wax candles to show their respect for recently deceased loved one from the household . In return the visitors would be served tapas or a warm corn meal drink called atole. In the southern state of Chiapas the holiday was more focused on processions and the elaborate decoration of home altars and the tombs of their deceased relatives. During this period, the popular belief is that the deceased have divine permission to visit friends and relatives on earth and enjoy once again the pleasures of life so the graves were covered with flowers and good things to eat.

Eventually the Spanish explorers felt the need to influence the local inhabitants beliefs and the  moved the summer celebration to coincide with their All Saints Days and All Souls Day. By the late 20th century the Holiday was changed to honor dead children and infants on November 1, Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels"). Deceased adult are remembered on November 2 Día de los Muertos "Day of the Dead").

The version that is more popular today has evolved into a week of festivities which begins on 28 October and ends with a national holiday on 2 November. In some urban regions costumed children roam the streets knocking on doors in search of a calaverita, a small gift of candy or money. A popular symbol of the holiday is the sugar skull or calavera. They are given as gifts to both the living and to the dead with the name of the recipient inscribe onto the forehead. Despite its somber overtones the holiday is a truly celebration of life.

The festivals also celebrate the Monarchs, as they return to their ancestral home, and this year looks as if it will be a banner year for them. Famous lookouts such as Cape May, New Jersey, Point Pelee National Park in Canada and many others along the gulf of Mexico have been reporting larger than usual numbers of migrators. One observer from Texas reported that as of October 27th  monarchs were passing at a rate of more than 300 per minute and that was just at one site and they are only the leading edge. Many, many flyways go unmonitored. Monarchs are still been sighted in Canada and through the lower 48 states in numbers like never before. With unseasonably warm temperatures the true migratory generation was able to linger longer in the northern regions. This may have allowed more than the usual numbers of  late season eggs to be laid and allow the caterpillars, and chrysalides to escape the otherwise killing temperatures. This is not necessarily a good thing. The big problem facing the late migrators is the availability of nectar sources to keep them fueled for their journey home. That is why, at Monarch Migration Station, we express the urgent need to have late blooming Fall plants available for them and this will become increasingly more important as the climate seems to continue to change.

Now is a good time to take note of what is still in bloom and what is being offered at your local plant centers. Make a list, collect seeds, and mulch anything that is still hanging on so you know what to propagate for next year. Remember, Milkweed earlier in the Spring and Nectar later in the Fall. And don’t worry about specializing because the summer months will take care of themselves.

So as the leaves go blowing by and the wind begins to beat the back of your neck keep a sharp eye for late migrating monarchs. You just maybe be surprised how some procrastinators will be passing by your garden.

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