American Indian Museum's 'Day of the Dead'

Party starts early at mall museum, October 20-21, 2012.

Exterior, Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON, October 19, 2012 – Americans may have Halloween, but Latin Americans—particularly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans—and other cultures around the world for that matter, celebrate Día de los Muertos, “The Day of the Dead.” While the usual date for this colorful international holiday is November 1, the National Museum of the American Indian, located on the Washington, D.C. mall near the U.S. Capitol, is commemorating the event this weekend with a variety of family friendly events.

What’s Día de los Muertos?

Unlike Halloween, during which kids, and often adults, parade around the neighborhood in colorful and sometimes scary costumes looking for treats from their neighbors, Día de los Muertos has a slightly more serious purpose even though it’s still a cause for great celebration. In Mexico in particular, this holiday is a time when family and friends get together to reflect on, pray for, and recollect fond memories of family members who have died recently or who passed away long ago.

What’s interesting about Día de los Muertos, however—at least in American culture—is that this holiday is an upper, not a downer. For Mexicans in particular, this is a time when everyone—and we mean everyone—gets together as a family, including the souls of the dead whom, we’d imagine, can only be too happy to take a rain check from their gig in the Heavenly Choirs to head back to Earth and enjoy their families once again. (Perhaps the Irish tale of Finnegan’s Wake is another riff on this theme.)

In many locales, the tradition of this holiday includes entire extended families camping out on or near their deceased relatives’ graves. (One of the Museum Maven’s Mexican-American friends and her family in Ohio have celebrated like this on several occasions.) Families bring in huge bouquets of fresh-cut flowers to decorate the graves. Marigolds are often favored, as their distinct fragrance is allegedly able to entice the souls of the dead to fly back to the planet and join in the fun and fellowship.

Celebrating the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In addition, the relatives of the deceased often carry along extensive picnic repasts to share as they party away in remembrance of family memories and values. It’s not uncommon for partying relatives to purposely leave a little food behind for their relatives as they head back to their own homes.

But cemeteries aren’t the only places where this holiday is celebrated. Similar to Halloween here, all manner of costumes, flowers and candies—particularly decorated “sugar skulls” are for sale, and town squares are often festooned with colorful decorations, although various varieties of skulls, ranging from happy ones to somewhat more ghoulish representations, are a key symbol of the holiday.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a cherished national holiday. Banks are closed, and many businesses are shuttered as well, though not the businesses, shops, and restaurants that do land-office business in connection with the holiday.

As with many modern holidays, the Day of the Dead, particularly in Mexico, has one metaphorical foot in Christianity and another in ancient religious history. Our term “Halloween,” is probably short for “Hallow Evening,” or more specifically, the Eve of All Hallows: October 31. It’s the day before the major Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day, November 1, which is generally still a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics—i.e., they’re required to attend Mass on that day even though it’s not a Sunday.

Unsurprisingly, the next day on the Catholic calendar is November 2, All Souls Day. Since we formally remembered all the deceased saints on November 1, it must have only seemed logical to celebrate everyone else’s deceased family “saints” the day after, ultimately making this three-day period—October 31-November 2—an annual time of reflection and remembrance.

For the Mexican people, this holiday period also hearkens back to an ancient Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl who, coincidentally, just happens to be a goddess from the underworld and the one in charge of looking out for the bones of the deceased. She’s likely a major reason behind the popularity of skulls in the modern festival. Her quiet presence on this day is also a reminder to use that a great many Christian holidays gained acceptance by blending themselves with ancient traditions as peoples and nations were gradually converted to Christianity.

National Museum of the American Indian holiday commemoration

The National Museum of the American Indian is commemorating Día de los Muertos a trifle early this year on October 21 and 22, perhaps as a way of not conflicting with the actual holiday.

The museum’s website invites us to “follow the monarch butterflies home and celebrate the return of the ancestors at the museum’s annual Día de los Muertos program. This colorful celebration of life includes food demonstrations by the museum’s Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe and a cultural presentation by La Danza de los Tecuanes.”

The museum’s family friendly program includes hands on activities that include making paper marigolds, papel picado (paper decorations) and perhaps even decorating some of those ubiquitous skulls—with these particular skulls being of the plastic or plaster variety.

Community mural painting activities will also be taking place in the museum’s Potomac Atrium where various ofrendas ( or “offerings”: memorial gifts or small altars) will also be on display. For more details, click this link.

If you don’t happen to be bringing your own repast, the Museum Maven highly recommends sampling some of the genuinely unique foods available in the Museum’s native foods café, Mitsitam. The entire menu is based on the foods and recipes of regional American Indian tribes, and many of these dishes won’t be found anywhere else in DC making lunch here a memorable experience, particularly for out-of-towners here on holiday. To check out the café’s current menus, click on this Mitsitam link.

The museum’s current hours are daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is free. Café and museum shop begin to close a bit earlier.

Museum Address: 4th St. & Independence Ave., SW,
Washington, DC 20560

Phone: 202-633-1000.
TTY (non-voice): 202-633-5285.

Getting there: You can drive, but parking is always a nightmare near the Smithsonian Museum complex on the Mall. Best bet from the Museum Maven: get to the museum area early and look for parking on the side streets south of Independence Avenue. Observe parking signs carefully as revenue enhancement tends to be ruthless, even for out-of-state tourists.

Closest metro stop is at L’Enfant Plaza (Blue/Orange/Green/Yellow lines). Exit via the Maryland Avenue/Smithsonian Museums exit. Note: Metro track work is going on all the time over each weekend. Check the Metro website at this link for the latest updates on track work and repairs. Note that Metro will open early on Sunday, October 31, for the Army Ten-Miler race. Check Metro’s website here for updates and details.

Special note: A related Día de los Muertos celebration will be held at the American Indian Museum, Heye Center in New York City at 1:00 p.m., Saturday, October 27, 2012. For details, click here.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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