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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...


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