Just how Hallowe'en – All-Hallows Eve, the eve before All Saints’ Day – has become so associated with the idea of spirits walking abroad, all decidedly diabolical rather than saintly, isn’t quite clear. But celebrated it certainly is. For children, it's probably the most important non-sectarian festival; for others, as ‘the night of Samhain’, it represents the first day of winter – but alongside and below these secular, pagan aspects, its religious roots run deep.
The festival of the Mexican Day of the Dead falling at this time, draws on an even older Aztec culture. These festivities were devoted to the Lady of the Dead, who was transformed into (the rather more Roman Catholic) Catrina. She appears as a partially dressed jolly skeleton, the whole festival enjoying a humorous carnival atmosphere, with an emphasis on food and drink, as well as music and dancing.
Enough talk, let's party!
I heard that merry dancing
long before I saw them
what a clitter-clattering
since they had no shoes
and hardly any clothes
which you really do not need
when you're a skeleton
a brightly coloured dress or two
occasional scarf an apron
even a ribbon tying back hair
no longer there and hats
of course now here's a plate
of little cakes and there's lots
to drink we've got a keg
when you've done with dancing
and feel dried out he's already
tipping it down into god knows where
while nobody seems to see me
naturally not when all they have
is vacant orbits black inside
their empty skulls yet I can see
right through their flimsy frames
no singing as you might expect
but syncopated chattering
of teeth and joints in complex time
a jangling harp accompanying
plucked by naked metacarpals
and percussive pounding feet
I tap my own as best I can
wanting to join the party
feeling invited yet not belonging
just yet but you can come
to dance as well in your own time
I sense but hear no words
while they continue dancing.
I was interested to learn that the name of these riotous skeletons – Calaveras – derives from the Latin word for skull Calvaria (itself interestingly linked to Calvary, ‘the place of the skull’).
And that the skull became the focal point, perhaps in rather the same way that we see and identify a person primarily by their face, and a skull and two cross bones is enough to represent a skeleton. But before long it became extended to describe the whole skeleton.
Also associated with all this is The Dance of Death, macabre but often festive, as illustrated by Durer and others. With, later in the nineteenth century, short mocking poems called – you guessed it – Calaveras. And the artist Posada (whose print below, later coloured, became my introductory image) created a famous print celebrating Catrina - La Calavera Catrina, along with many another satirical image of all sorts of skeletons, at work and at play.
Thus the story merrily dances on.
And may we all...