"In the Aztec tradition, there is a special day when the world of the living and the dead have a gateway to party, sing, and dance together," explains Jim Hammond of the November 2 holiday known as Day of the Dead.
As executive producer of the Florida Day of the Dead Celebration, Hammond has helped put together an evening filled with festivities that pay homage to the spirit of the tradition, including a parade featuring colossal, handcrafted puppets, thousands of dancing skeleton pirates and brides, ceremonial altars, mariachi bands, craft tents where kids can create their own Day of the Dead puppets, and food trucks with a Latin-American focus.
But these aren't just your average, pre-fab kids' toys; Hammond's larger-than-life puppets mean business. After seven years of working on the road as the puppet master on the Broadway production of The Lion King, Hammond eventually returned home to South Florida, where he coalesced with other like-minded artists and musicians who wanted to push their creative energies toward a Day of the Dead party — only to discover there wasn't one.
In 2010, after a bit of grant-writing and good old brainstorming, they cobbled together the funds to launch their first celebration in Fort Lauderdale. That event brought out a humble 700 or so participants. Four years later, the last festival drew 2,000 revelers, and on this year's Facebook page, already more than 5,000 guests have joined, though Hammond thinks that number could have been more, had Day of the Dead not fallen on a Monday.
"People tell us to change the day," Hammond says. "But you don't celebrate Christmas on December 26 just so it can fall on a weekend. It's important to a lot of people we keep the Day of the Dead Celebration on the actual Day of the Dead."
It's just another testament to Hammond and his team's artful commitment to the festive celebration. This year, he says, one of the biggest attractions of the parade will be Mictlantecuhtli, a 30-foot puppet on which 220 people have worked under Hammond's experienced eye.
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"He is a giant Aztec skeleton character who is one of the overseers of the Aztec underworld," he explains of the massive creation. "He's 22 feet tall and is seated on a seven-foot-tall Aztec pyramid. I started designing him last spring, and we've been building him since August."
And while a three-story-high skeleton may sound like a gothic nightmare, Hammond insists Day of the Dead is a fiesta for the entire family.
"In the U.S., we have a challenged relationship with death," says Hammond, who has kept true to the holiday's spirit of celebration. "This is an opportunity with puppets, music, crafts, and food and drink to reflect in a playful way on the people you lost."