Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Days of the Dead

We have not one but three days to celebrate death.

Last night was Halloween, never one of my favorite holidays, when everyone, young and old, tries on new identities to see how they fit. My favorite, seen last night among the crowds of crazies on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, was a young Latina with a blood-splattered baby struggling to climb out of a hole in her pregnant belly. There were numerous witches and vampires, and the usual walking dead without costumes taking photos and videos of skimply clad teenagers shivering in 40-degree weather.

Back in the Sixties, when I was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I was assigned to cover the party on Halloween at the Black Cat, a notorious bar for homosexuals on the edge of North Beach. Halloween was the only day when transgendered folks could legally cross dress and it was a major social event. There were bleachers for spectators, kleig lights criss-crossing the sky, and limos which unloaded the glamorous stars, Miss this and Miss that, to thunderous applause.

It is also the day when we sing these immortal words from Bobby "Boris" Pickett's Halloween anthem "Monster Mash":
He did the Mash. ("He did the Monster Mash!")
He did the Mash. ("It was a graveyard smash!")
He did the Mash. ("It came on in a flash")
Pickett, so our mutual friend Mike told me, invested his earnings in Afghani hash which he then smuggled back into this country inside of oriental rugs. Ah, the Sixties!

Last night thousands congregated downtown in streets emptied of cars as a police helicopter circled overhead. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that
General themes in costumes emerged as the night deepened. The ornate Mexican wrestler mask — think "Nacho Libre" — was a frequent go-to item for men. For women, a surprisingly popular look was the yellow-and-black honey bee, accompanied by a yellow tutu and twirling antennae.

On the political front, one Dick Cheney grinning carrying a shot gun and what looked to be a dead quail in a cage was spotted. A few Borats mixed with a couple of Ali G.'s. The haunted V from "V for Vendetta" was seen several times as was Shrek, the Energizer Bunny and the droogies from "A Clockwork Orange."

This morning the legacy was trash in the streets, rotting pumpkins, and two people in the hospital with stab wounds. Certainly not a few students went to class with hangovers.

Today is the Feast of All Saint's Day, also called All Hallows Day. Tomorrow is All Souls Day. Both today and tomorrow are celebrated by Mexicans as Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. I'm not sure how the four celebrations are connected, but the theme of death is all pervasive. Long Live Death!

Of course, by means of Google and Wikipedia, you can now find out everything; the internet is one big brain which never forgets anything, though it often fails to distinguish between fact and rumor. The Day of the Dead came first, celebrated by the Aztecs for thousand of years. Spanish conquistadores were horrified by their celebration of death, which was based on the belief that life was just a dream and death was the only true reality. Today Mexicans celebrate the date with marigolds, sugar skulls and a special bread, as well as the construction of household shrines and processions to the cemetery. It has been especially popular in Oaxaca, but all celebrations there have been curtailed by the present revolution and oppression. In Guanajuato, I visited the Museum of the Mummies, one of the area's top tourist attractions, where dozens of mummified human corpses, mysteriously preserved by unique climatic and soil conditions, are on display. The grusome place had a festive air as parents pointed out to young children the baby mummy and the pregnant mummy.

I asked Noel, my expert on all things religious, to explain the difference between All Saints Day and All Souls Day and he simply noted that "we are all souls but only a few of us become saints."

Garrison Keillor told me on the radio yesterday that All Saints Day was started in the 3rd century by Pope Gregory the Great to counter the pagan holidays. One of them might have been Samhain, the Irish word for November, when the first three days were celebrated by the Celts as the end of the summer season and the harvest. It's also the name for one of the sabbat feasts to mark the Wiccan wheel of the year.

I think it's a good thing to remember the dead and to realize that life for all of us is a terminal disease. On these days of celebration and remembrance, I will think of my father and mother, my uncles and aunt, my good and much-missed friend Peter, Allen who survived a heart attack but not liver cancer, Betsy and Ma'im who died from breast cancer and hepititis C, and all of those other friends and relatives who are gone but not forgotten. They live on, if not in Heaven, at least in our hearts.

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