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October 2008

Dia de los Muertos - Day of the Dead

This morning, the  Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation set up a community event- Dia de los Muertos -  in the courtyard of Casa De La Guerra, located in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara.  The turquoise sky and the hot yellow sun lit the whitewashed adobe courtyard, while  intricate tissue paper banners (papel picado) fluttered in the breeze.

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Originally celebrated by Olmecs, Aztecs, Mayans, and native Meso-Americans for at least 3,000 years,  Dia de los Muertos has continued to be one of the most important Mexican holidays of each year. It is a joyous time when the deceased are able to journey back from their abode "on the other side",   to visit with family and friends.  They are welcomed and guided home by families who create an altar, La Ofrenda, in their honor.  In Mexico, there are even celebrations held in cemeteries, where picnics and parties go on all night long, at the graves of loved ones.

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This altar was created for the De la Guerra family in  the courtyard of their home that was built in 1819.   The altar included a picture of Don Jose de la Guerra,  a symbolic bottle of wine, a skull enjoying a cigarette, flowers, and candles, as well as  items his wife must have enjoyed during her lifetime, like a lacy Spanish fan, jewelry, soft skeins of yarn, and knitting needles. 


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The De la Guerras were the honored guests,  and Santa Barbara's children and families, as well as visitors from all around the world  gathered to learn more about Dia de los Muertos.

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What fun for the De la Guerras - who have long since departed this earthly plane - to return and see how much their city has grown, and how they have remained the center of the cultural and historic life of Santa Barbara for the past 200 years.

Today, I met Karen, Kevin, and their mom.  These Santa Barbarans  are  Mexican-Americans who embrace the traditions and culture of Mexico, as much as they do their American culture.  Karen and Kevin each selected a sugar skull from the boxes and began to decorate them with colored frosting.  These skulls are joyous reminders to believers that death is not an ending, but just another phase of life.   Karen and Kevin and I  talked about their family's Dia de los Muertos traditions as they created their beautiful sugar skulls....

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Each year their family builds an altar in their home, and spends the day remembering and "visiting" with their relatives who have passed on.  Karen told me it is important to create a colorful setting on which to place favorite items to welcome deceased family members back home. 

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Karen and her family  include photographs of loved ones, favorite foods like tamales, mole,  pan de muerto, and candies.   Pan de muerto is a special, sugary sweet bread baked for the occasion, decorated with little bits of dough in the shape of  bones or teardrops.  Karen cautioned me not to forget to place a glass of water on the altar, as the travelers  "are very thirsty from their long trip."  

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Altars can be made for other friends, or influential people who are important to the celebrants.  It's a time to thank those who have gone before, for the gifts they have made of their lives, and how they continue to influence us in the present.  It is perfectly fitting that the De la Guerras were remembered today, at the site of their lovely home.

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I also learned that marigolds are a very important symbol of the holiday. Just as candles and incense help to guide the dead, the fragrance of marigold petals actually creates a path for them - guiding them to the altar, and to the family feast being held in their honor.

Today, visitors were given the chance to create paper flowers, flores de papel, to symbolize the marigold.

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There was a table set up to allow visitors to make block prints on black cloth, creating pictures of Aztec warriors, or "La Catrina", or Fancy Lady, who wears a big, feathered hat.dia de los muertos 028

La Catrina and the other skeletons who are icons of this holiday, demonstrate with humor, that we all meet the same fate.  Although La Catrina is a fancy lady who has many material things, neither she, nor we, will escape the experience of death.   And the jubilant spirit of Dia de los Muertos reminds us all that death is as much a part of life as being born.

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Kids made paper masks, and decorated them with feathers, glitter, stickers and buttons. These are similar to the wooden masks worn during dances performed at Dia de los Muertos celebrations.

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Following the dances, the masks are also added to the altars. Noise, songs, and dancing are also ways to entice loved ones back home.

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In the middle of all this, I also met Hikari, a young Japanese student who is living in Santa Barbara.  She has only been here a short time, and was not familiar with Dia de los Muertos.  She saw all the activity in the courtyard, and decided to join in the fun and to learn more about this colorful Mexican tradition.   She was adding the finishing touches to the  mask  she was creating, and had taken lots of photographs to send to family and friends in Japan.

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Once again, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation brought people together from near and far on a beautiful Santa Barbara afternoon.  The Trust is an organization that keeps this city vibrant and alive through our connection with the past - and Dia de los Muertos is just one of their fabulous events. 

Please consider supporting this very special organization. You may visit their website at:  SBTHP 

I found the website of  Spanish artist, Ritxi Ostariz. Click on this link to see his wonderful video about  Dia de los calaca

Season of Legerdemain

Every morning, a flock of big black crows congregate in a tall tree down the sidewalk from my house.  And when crows gather in a flock they are called a "murder of crows" fitting!

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They fly overhead, criss-crossing the narrow patch of blue sky above my patio, racing beneath the clouds, cawing, cawing.  The neighborhood echoes with their harsh and rasping voices.  They gather on the sidewalk, then fly up and dart from tree to tree above the street.

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They seem to portend a time of mischief, a season of trickery and legerdemain.  

The days are noticeably shorter now, and as hot and dry as a furnace.  Nights are cooler, inky and clear - stars look like bits of glass strewn across the black.

All over town, there are signs of autumn and a magical time to come.  There are pumpkins on porches...

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and witches and ghosts who lurk in the shadows, and skeletons  that rattle as they swing in the warm autumn  breezes. 

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It appears that even the statues above the Chase Restaurant intend to misbehave.  It's almost time to celebrate Halloween in Santa Barbara....


And in that spirit, with just a little imagination, a party invitation, and a pinch of graveyard dust, anyone can achieve a complete transformation with some help from our local specialists...


Today, I stopped in at Scavenge - a year-round costume shop with everything needed to create a memorable Halloween persona...

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Scavenge offers complete costumes with everything included in one package.  They also have walls of makeup, wigs, wings, tights, chains, and dozens of other options to allow you to create a one-of-a-kind costume for your special night.

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The staff is really friendly, and if you need some help and inspiration, they can offer all kinds of ideas.  There are costumes and accessories for men, women and children.  There are sexy costumes, lingerie, and plus size costumes, too.  I even saw a cute little Christmas-y helper costume called "Miss Glitter", complete with candy-striped tights.  So you see, they aren't just for Halloween....

You can find them located near the beach at 52 Helena Street (805 564 2000).  Best of all, you can visit them on their website and ask for same-day shipping: scavenge

Next I went to World of Magic.

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Located at 319 Anacapa Street (805 962 0037), this warehouse is full of every hideous, frightening thing you need to transform your home and yourself into a Halloween nightmare. There are tombstones, snakes, skulls, webs, disembodied heads - every kind of  "creepy"  you could imagine.

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The store is fun, lively, and crowded with kids and adults who are delighted with all the possibilities...

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And I found what may be  the most frightening costume of all - the velvet disco shirt!

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I also saw some great ideas at Yellowstone Clothing (527 State Street),


And at Black Star Trading  (430 State Street)

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There is still time - don't be scared.  Take advantage of all the ideas and the magic in the air that are swirling around like autumn leaves...become something new, for just one night.

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Dance the ring, luck to bring,

When the year's aturning,

Chant the rhyme at Hallowstime,

When the fire's burning

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Fire fair, earth and air,

And the heaven's rain,

And blessed be, and so may we,

At Hallowstide again.

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Dance the ring, luck to bring,
When the year's aturning.
Chant the rhyme at Hallowstime,
When the fire's burning.
-Samhain Chant