The Art of Cultural Remembrances

When I first learned about the customs around Día de los Muertos I felt surprisingly joyous, even though the holiday is focused on remembering family and friends who are no longer living. Celebrated in Mexico and many other Hispanic cultures, the holiday is similar to the Memorial Day in the United States including rituals around remembrances, stories, and family gatherings.

What better way to remember the quirks and family legends around the grandpa’s love of tequila, or Aunt Maria’s passion for cigarettes? These favorite items are placed on the graves along with bread of the dead, a sweet bread baked with a skull and crossbones into the dough, flowers, and candles.

Bread of the Dead

img_20171101_1633024552371679130242658.jpgDuring this time, families gather at the cemetery to clean and refurbish grave sites. After the work is done, many will bring food and drink and make a night of celebrating the lives of these important family members. Storytelling and reminiscences play a big part of the gatherings. Copal incense is burned to help guide the spirits of the dead back to the gathering so they may partake in the celebration of remembrance. Markets are filled with Marigolds or cempasuchitl (flower of the dead), which are much taller and bigger flowers than the Marigolds seen in most gardens, which are purchased to decorate the graves. The flowers add color and scent to the altars, to guide the dead back to celebrate with friends and family.

Decorated graves in a cemetery outside of Cuernavaca.

IMG_20171101_162442.jpg  El Día de los Muertos is recognized across the entire community with altars to remember those passed, not only in homes but in stores, local plazas and community centers. The altars are creative and personal: sugar skulls are embellished with colorful frosting spelling out the names of the remembered sit alongside photos of the remembered, festooned with papel picado, cut paper banners.


If you are interested in seeing more about this beautiful cultural celebration, there is a 1957 film by Charles and Ray Eames that shows more about Día de los Muertos through its icons and artifacts.


Art and life and the holidays  

This is an oldie but cherished memory – enjoy!

The holidays bring out the best and worst of all human characteristics. Art plays a big part of the memories we hold in our minds as we make our way through the season, and movies, in particular, have played a big part in our collective memory. Although the movie industry is one of the most lucrative creative careers today, I am sure that as the directors, producers, and actors planned out these movies they were not just thinking about profit. These movies are now an important part of our popular culture. After thinking about which movies I return to year after year, I noticed they have something in common: a story based on hope and a happy ending. Here are 5 of my personal must-see movies for the holiday season:

Trading PlacestrdingplacesimagesOne of my favorites – a story of entitlement vs reality set during the Christmas holidays. Lots of very dark humor, such as when street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) meets up with the Duke brothers who own a commodities trading company. They beat him around the head with their Wall Street Journal when he approaches them for a hand-out. Dan Ackroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis add to the team that turns the tables against the Duke Brothers, representing the moneyed elite. One of my favorite scenes is Dan Ackroyd stealing from the holiday buffet of his former employer dressed as a Santa, later pulling a smoked salmon out from inside his jacket and gnawing on it (and his beard) while riding home on the bus. A happy ending on an island vacation paradise rolling in money and eating sumptuous foods.

ChristmasVera-Ellen-finale-White-ChristmasWhite Christmas: Set in the early 1950’s, this is a period piece that continues to be a classic over 60 years later. The setting is Vermont after WWII, and the nostalgia for the camaraderie of the war is spiced up with Irving Berlin’s music, choreography, and spectacular dance sets. And then there is the final scene where the snow is falling and Bing Crosby sings I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas and gives viewers the happy ending everyone was hoping for.


A Christmas Story:  This take on Christmas nostalgia relates well to the baby boomer generation. The memory of the Christmas parade centered around the town’s local department stores with their fantastic Santa dioramas, and fantasizing for a BB gun might be incomprehensible to today’s children. Even so, there are moments where it is timeless; children’s anticipation for gifts, the fuzziness between reality and childhood experience and holiday foods, are all something that kids today can relate. The movie has a happy ending with Ralphie sleeping next to his BB gun on Christmas night.

santa die hardimagesDie Hard: Perhaps a strange choice for a holiday movie, but somehow setting the story of a terrorist attack in a high rise building on Christmas Eve brings everything about the holidays together. The terrorists show up as McClane, a NY detective comes to LA to reunite with his wife at her corporate Christmas party in her office high rise. Lots of scenes with good vs evil, and the cops are portrayed as the good guys. The happy ending is that the good guys win, McClane and wife are reunited and go home to celebrate Christmas day together with their children.

Everett-Christmas VacationNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: The quintessential American Christmas story about Clark Griswold’s hopes of creating a fairy-tale old-fashioned Christmas for his entire family. Since this is a comedy, it’s no spoiler alert to say this movie goes from scene to scene with funny moments that make you laugh out loud as you are cringing. From the procurement of the tree out in the wilderness to decorating the outside of the house with lights, all the tiny details add up to a string of disasters. Clark’s valiant attempts to create a spectacular Christmas with the holiday lights, and his intention to make the house the best on the block, takes on the symbol of Clark’s manhood and his achievement as a provider. All of the family members are parodies that we can all relate to and we smile with anticipation as each new holiday situation arrives at the Griswold home: one of the best one-liners was from Clark’s wife, Ellen Griswold: “ I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.” As the Christmas holiday proceeds with Christmas tree fires, squirrel attacks, and the destruction of the dining room by the cousin’s dog, Ellen wonders if it could get any worse. Clark responds “How could things get any worse? We’re at the threshold of hell!” Despite all the challenges, the Griswold family does manage to have the best old-fashioned Christmas ever, including a happy ending with entire cast singing Deck the Halls.