It is a surprisingly warm October morning. In the basement of a Quaker Meeting House, an able Hispanic woman, Nydia Vargas, directs about a dozen eight-year-olds in painting cloth and plaster masks. The masks, initially white, are now red and yellow and blue.
Fish-shaped snack crackers and breakfast bars are laid out on a table, as are feathers and other mask adornments. Against a wall, a small shrine covered with wax skulls and carved wooden skeletons seems strangely out of place in this otherwise festive environment.
But upon closer inspection, the skulls and skeletons are festive as well, gaily colored and carved with merry rictal grins. Books of Mexican fairy tales form the shrine’s backdrop, and the whole affair, at first slightly menacing, becomes welcoming, even fun.
This transformation of fear into fun is the purpose of The Day of the Dead, the holiday for which the children are decorating. The yearly celebration invites the deceased back into the world of the living, and helps celebrants understand that death is a natural and necessary part of life. This year marks Missoula’s tenth anniversary of the holiday.
It all started in September of 1993, with Mike deMing and Bev Glueckert, graduates of UM’s art department. DeMing had participated in a similar celebration in Mexico, and thought such an event would be a good fit for a town like Missoula. The holiday typically falls just after Halloween, so with only a month-and-a-half of frenzied activity, the pair kicked off the first year’s celebration with a processional, a kind of dead man’s parade. While the parade attracted only about 150 people the first year, it has evolved into the celebration’s central event.
Because Missoula doesn’t have a large Hispanic community, Glueckert and deMing have attempted to make the event as multicultural as possible, including celebrations from around the world. They’ve also used their background in the arts to involve area artists in the event, and over the years it has grown into a yearly celebration for that community as well.
Each year, The Day of the Dead celebration has grown in size. This year, Glueckert expects an audience of about 1,500 people at the processional, as well as about 800 participants.
There are no formal rules as to what can be in the processional, but each year, Glueckert says, she is amazed by the floats and costumes that show up. She has seen dead Elvis, a dead bride and groom, even dead presidents.
“We never know who’s going to show up, or what’s going to show up,” she says. “The procession becomes more beautiful each year. It’s pretty mind-boggling.”
While The Day of the Dead is free and open to the public, it does cost money to produce. This year, Glueckert estimates that the celebration will cost about $7,000. This money comes from local business sponsors and generous individuals without whom, Glueckert says, the celebration would be impossible.
“Our community partnerships are just essential,” she says.
Although the holiday has been generally well-accepted, there have been a few rough spots over the years. Early on, parishioners from a local church circled Day of the Dead celebrants, praying for their salvation, and Glueckert has had her fair share of phone calls from people claiming that she was in some way promoting Satanism.
In actuality, the Day of the Dead celebration dates back to the 16th century, and is a blend of pre-Christian and Catholic traditions.
Traditional belief holds that the spirits of the ancestors should be invited back to the land of the living to celebrate life each year. The living families cook food that their ancestors enjoyed when they were alive, and spend time making special altars to loved ones who have passed on.
The Day of the Dead also has a more practical purpose, in that it deals with confronting death. Latin Americans have an almost taunting, laughing way of dealing with their inevitable end, Glueckert says, an attitude Americans seem unable to adopt.
“In our culture, there is a lot of denial and a lot of repression when it comes to dealing with death,” she says.
Besides the processional, which will start at the Xs at 6 p.m. on Friday, there are plenty of other events for the aspiring dead-head.
There will be arts exhibits and workshops starting on Halloween and running through November 3, as well as dancing, drumming, a re-enactment of a baroque carnival, and a massive unofficial party at the Union Club all weekend long. Kettlehouse Brewery has even joined in the fun, creating their special “Very Pale Ale,” for the celebration.
For more information call Bev Glueckert at 728-5846 or Michael deMing at 721-3806.