Ceska Pozice

Prague’s day of the dead

An exhibition of religious festivals in Mexico and the Czech Republic highlights both cultural differences and correspondences

Michael Stein 6.11.2011

Celebrating skeletons represent a typical Mexican Day of the Dead decoration foto: Česká pozice

Celebrating skeletons represent a typical Mexican Day of the Dead decoration

Jolly Skeletons (Veselí kostlivci) is an exhibition at Prague’s Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures devoted to Mexico’s colorful religious festivals such as Day of the Dead, Carnival, and Three Kings, with an accompanying exhibition on their Czech equivalents. Step into a world of skeletons, graveside altars, carnival masks and many other fascinating objects.

On the surface the exotic celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico seems to be worlds away from its Czech equivalent. After all, the traditional Czech celebration of All Souls Day on Nov. 2 involves little more than quiet cemetery visits during which graves are spruced up and have flowers and candles put on them.

Called “Little Souls” (Dušičky) the custom is seen by many Czech as an obligation involving long drives to faraway cemeteries and visiting unpleasant relatives, though others relish the somber atmosphere of graveside communion under gray autumn skies.

Yet the exhibition shows that there were more similarities between the two festivals than one might think. For one thing, many of the older Czech customs surrounding “Little Souls” have fallen away, such as filling lamps with butter instead of oil so that the souls of the dead could sooth the burns they had received in purgatory.

And just as Mexicans bake what is called the “bread of the dead” (pan de muerto) – bread in the form of animals, plants or human limbs, examples of which can be seen in the exhibition – there was a Czech custom of giving pastries in the shape of crossed bones called “God’s bones” to beggars.

Exhibition curator Kateřina Klápšťová also stressed that though the festivals represented in Jolly Skeletons celebrate Catholic holidays they are all essentially of pre-Christian origin. This is another source of difference between the forms the celebrations have taken in Europe and Latin America. Day of the Dead, for example, is generally considered to come from a festival for an Aztec goddess.

On Dec. 4 Czechs celebrate St. Barbora’s Day, though the exhibition makes it plain that this holiday has nothing to do with Christian tradition but was a pagan festival that the Catholic Church co-opted. Carnival itself faced official ambivalence throughout its history, with religious authorities declaring some of its more festive aspects immoral.

Photographs make up an integral part of the exhibition as well. One of the highlights of the Czech section are photographs taken by Ludvík Baran between 1960 and 1975 of carnival celebrations in Southern Bohemia. The colorful festivities depicted in black and white images end up also being fascinating documents of a specific time and place. By contrast the more recent color photographs from Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations by Vojtěch Vlk capture the energy and vitality that festival is so well-known for.

Mystic visits

While the exhibition shows the full range of Catholic holidays the centerpiece is Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which remains one of the more unique celebrations in the world. Speaking at a press conference for the exhibition First Secretary of the Mexican Embassy in Prague Martin Torrés pointed out that the festival is not at all a celebration of death, but of the presence of the departed and their memories among the living.

The full celebration begins two days before the Day of the Dead proper on Oct. 31, with a day devoted to adults that died tragically. With men and boys going house to house singing. The next day is called Day of the Innocents or Day of the Little Angels for children who died before christening.

The exhibition shows the variety of ways Mexicans celebrate. A sample gravestone altar is covered with offerings such as a bottle of Tequila, peppers and the traditional flower of the dead, marigolds, and offers a stark contrast to the gray gravestone in the Czech section of the exhibition.

Merry Skeletons is a relatively small exhibition and many of the objects on display are familiar; this is especially true of the Czech items. But for exhibition visitors without any experience of St. Nicholas, “Little Souls” or Czech Carnival, it offers an excellent opportunity to see the past and present of these colorful customs while being able to compare them to another Catholic tradition from the other side of the world.

Jolly Skeletons (Veselí kostlivci)
Nov. 3, 2011 – March 4, 2012
Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures
Betlémské nám. 1, Praha 1

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