Texas traditions can originate from almost anywhere in the world, thanks to our diverse history of immigration. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that some of Mexico’s customs have been brought north of the border. The most colorful, and thought by many to be mysterious, celebration is Dia de los Muertos.
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When I first approached a group of friends about having a Dia de los Muertos party, they were a bit hesitant. “Isn’t that kind of morbid?” “Isn’t that a celebration of death?”
The simple answer is no – it’s something much more upbeat than you may think.
Luckily, a few of them had seen the Disney Pixar movie “Coco” that familiarized American audiences with the celebration through a powerful story about family, community, tradition and remembrance. Think about Memorial Day, and the concept doesn’t seem so strange.
The gist is to celebrate the lives of our ancestors, rather than mourn their passing, by incorporating food, drink and activities they enjoyed in life. Family members create “altars” in their homes with photos of loved ones surrounded by offerings of food, flowers and mementos. Others visit family cemeteries to decorate ancestors’ graves and share stories about their lives. The days of the celebration surround the Catholic “All Souls Day” on November 2. (So it isn’t really a ‘Halloween thing” like many think.)
Many of us no longer live in the communities of our ancestors, so circles of friends tend to become our new families. That’s why I thought having our own Dia de los Muertos celebration together would be a fun chance to celebrate all of our families and have some fun and great food at the same time! (Plus, I have some talented friends, so we’re always up for a reason to celebrate together!)
You can easily put together your own party as well.
Be sure to incorporate photos of loved ones who’ve passed, and share their stories. It keeps their spirit and your family lore alive.
I not only included photos of my mother, who we lost last year to Alzheimers, but also made tissue paper flowers for decorations – a craft she taught me as a child.
Attention to the smallest details can make a theme like this really come together. The talented Evangeline Event Designs made adorable sugar skull invitations and colorful menu cards, and I found some adorable small decorative accents, as well as a beautiful embroidered skull dishcloth at Hendley Market. The bright Fiestaware plates and platters are from Yesterday’s Best.
No Mexican theme meal is complete without tamales. We loved these from Pennie’s Tex Mex Takeout.
Alicia from The Kitchen Chick made chorizo with apricot sauce, Bob Armstrong queso (from the “Queso!” recipe book she carries in her store), and an amazing Blackberry Mezcal Smash Cocktail.
Our friend Stacy, otherwise known as the Hurried Hostess, made amazing fruit tacos and a churro bar. Yum-ola!
But the item that really had us all gasping in disbelief were the gorgeous cookies created by Jennifer from Good Gosh Ganache. I mean, really…look at these beauties!
Our friends Hailey and Tamara used their styling talents to help our buffet look amazing. Making this event such a group effort made it even more special.
Many communities in Texas offer the opportunity to experience Dia de los Muertos, including San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Victoria and Austin. Check your local community calendar to see if there’s one near you, and celebrate!
“Jumped headlong from a window of the Confederate Home…”
The line made me gasp out loud.
To back up a little, I was in search for background information about Christian Henry Thieme before a recent trip to Austin to locate his grave.
The Galvestonian was born in Germany in 1827, immigrated to Texas in 1860 and was a member of th e Catholic church He enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 34, once telling an interviewer that he had been “a private in Company B, in Cook’s heavy artillery. My first captain was Coura, and first major was Cook.”
I knew that he and his wife Elizabeth had a family of three daughters, and they all had survived the 1900 Storm. Yet at some point, Christian ended up in the Confederate Men’s Home (for disabled veterans) in Austin.
During the 1900 Storm, Christian and Elizabeth lived with their daughter Selma Nelson and her family at 710 Church Street. Although they didn’t lose any family members in the tragedy, they were sure to have witnessed grievous sights.
The traumatic events caused him to become mentally unbalanced, forcing his family to send him to the home in Austin the following April.
Suffering from rheumatism and old wounds far from home, he was dealt an additional blow when his wife died in November. She is buried in Galveston’s Oleander Cemetery, but her marker has been lost to time.
I thought I may have found all available information about him, and then came the discovery of a newspaper account of his death on June 23, 1910.
“Christian Thieme, an aged Confederate soldier, killed himself today by jumping headlong from a window of the Confederate Home. Thieme became mentally unbalanced at the time of the Galveston storm. Melancholia caused him to talk constantly of killing himself. Formerly an express man at Galveston, he lost all his property in the tidal wave and was force to come to the Confederate Home. None of his relatives can be located.”
Stunning. And infuriating…because his family still lived in Galveston and couldn’t have been too difficult to locate.
So I went to visit him and find his marker.
It stands in a sea of military markers in Confederate Field at the Texas State Cemetery, with his last name misspelled as “Thiemer.” Gleaming white as if wanting someone to remember his story.
And now he has had at least one visitor from home.
Texas State Cemetery, Confederate Field, Section 1 (F), Row B, No. 18.
Many gravestones don’t begin to tell the story of a life or death, just listing the barest of facts. But every so often I see one that illustrates a chapter of the life (or end of life in this case) that ensures the marker was created just for this specific individual. These are the type I wish every grave had, to help us appreciate the person memorialized.
This spectacular carving portrays a father holding a young child in his arms and standing at his wife’s gravesite. I’ve never seen one like it in person.
Even with over 150 years of weathering, the details are astounding. He holds a top hat in his left hand and his child in his right. The drapes of the child’s dressing gown hang down behind it’s father’s arm. Facial features of the man are still somewhat discernible, and his wife’s grave is marked with a headstone and footstone. One knows immediately that he has been left alone to care for their small child.
It marks the resting place of Clarissa Wells Collins in Austin’s historic Oakwood Cemetery.
Clarissa, a native New Yorker, married Travis County constable and farmer Thomas C. Collins in January 1856, when she was 30 years old.
They were blessed with a daughter, who they named Clarissa Ann (“Annie”), in July 1860 but just four months later Clarissa passed away.
On Halloween 1864 Adelaide “Addie” Swisher, Clarissa’s sister who had married James Monroe Swisher at her sister’s home in 1857, died as well presumably from postpartum complications. Her name is listed on Tom’s gravestone, along with the name “Little Lillie,” their three year old daughter who died the same year.
The following year Tom enlisted in the military and was stationed in Austin.
He joined his wife in death in April 1871.
Their young child, who is referred to in documentation alternately as Annie or Clara, ended up being raised by her aunt Ann Marie Wells in Brooklyn far from where her parents were laid to rest. She lived the rest of her life on the east coast, and I wonder if she ever came to visit their graves and stood before this stone. It’s doubtful.
So much sadness in such a short time.
But Tom’s love, and grief, is immortalized here in marble and encourages those who pass by to learn their story.
I came to Oakwood specifically to look for this marker, and made an additional discovery that made my day.
As I was photographing it, I looked at the bottom right corner and found the signature of the carver… Allen & Company Marbleworks of Galveston. Especially thrilling, since Allen owned the state’s first marbleworks, founded in Galveston in 1852 on Center Street between Strand and Mechanic. His business has now been owned by the Ott family for five generations.
The gravestone had traveled a long way to come here.
I love a good connection to Galveston history, and somehow seem to find them wherever I go.
I’ve been getting quite a few requests to do more cemetery history tours in Galveston in the past couple of months. So…..
I’ve scheduled a tour through Eventbrite to make it easier for individuals to sign up!
This is the cemetery tour that has been featured on “Texas Country Reporter,” “Texas Chronicles,” the local news, magazines and newspapers. I’m ready to show you that the true stories from the past really can be stranger than fiction!
We’ll meet in the Historic Broadway Cemetery District, where I’ll introduce you to some of Galveston’s past citizens, from heroes to villains, notorious to noteworthy. We’ll focus on Trinity Cemetery, where’s something here for everyone: stunning artwork, hidden symbolism, Civil War history, surprising trivia and even one resident ghost.
Follow this link to purchase your tickets, or to find out more details about the tour:
See you at the cemetery!
When I give cemetery tours or workshops I get a lot of questions about the symbolism of different hand portrayals on gravestones.
An index finger pointing up symbolizes the hope of heaven. Knowing this causes some raised eyebrows when visitors spot any markers with a downward pointing finger.
Not to worry…it doesn’t mean the person is going ‘in the other direction!’ It just represents God reaching down for the soul (or an unexpected death).
I wanted to write a post for Memorial Day that tells the story of someone with Galveston ties who gave their life in battle. The challenge was that there are so very many stories to tell. In the Broadway Cemetery complex alone there are veterans from every war from 1812 forward. Of course, not all of them lost their life in the service, and many of those who did have stories that are well-known.
So I decided to go with a little more obscure story with Galveston ties that many locals may not have heard.
When people visit the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, they usually visit the impressive star-topped monument and possibly the USS Battleship Texas. But are you aware there are actually TWO cemeteries on the grounds?
The most visible of the two is close to the battleship, and known as San Jacinto Battlefield Cemetery. It is where the handful of Texans killed in the battle were buried near the Texan Army camp. Buried there are Dr. William Junius Motley, Sgt. Thomas Patton Fowle, Lt. George A. Lamb, Lt. John C. Hale and privates Lemuel Stockton Blakey, Mathias Cooper, Ashley R. Stevens, Benjamin Rice Brigham and Olwyn Trask.
Taking the time to read the lengthy inscriptions, the word “Galveston” (of course) caught my eye.
“Olwyn J. Trask…died on Galveston Island… of wounds …received at the San Jacinto Battlefield…”
This is how it begins, folks. I see something like this and I’m off, down the rabbit hole of research. Olwyn’s story took me on a complicated journey that involved his family, his unlikely demise, and even the beginnings of Baylor University. But here, I’ll just concentrate on his story.
Olwyn Trask’s sister Frances was a brilliant educator in Texas. By some accounts Olwyn, a recent college graduate, was sent to Texas during the Revolution by their family in Massachusetts to bring her home. Because he arrived in the Spring of 1835, however, it is more likely that he came to join her and their cousins (the Dix family) to seek out business prospects.
Soon after spirited 21-year-old reached Galveston though, he impulsively joined the Texas Army to fight for independence from Mexico.
He became a member of Captain William H. Smith’s Cavalry Company, after General Sam Houston himself witnessed his horsemanship skills in lassoing a young mustang.
On April 20, 1836, the day preceding the famous Battle of San Jacinto, he was one of 80 men under Colonel Sherman who skirmished against the Mexican Army. Only two men in the Texan ranks were wounded, but Olwyn’s were mortal.
Nicholas Descomps Labadie was an assistant surgeon in the Second Regiment Volunteers under Anson Jones, and treated Trask when he arrived back at camp. The conditions were primitive, and resources limited.
Olwyn was transported to Galveston on a boat with Texan President Burnet and others, where he was to receive further treatment.
The following extract of a letter from New Orleans furnishes details of Olwyn’s fate:
“I called on General Houston yesterday, to ascertain particulars relative to Olwyn J. Trask; he says that he lies dangerously wounded at the Fort at Galveston Island. His thigh was broken in a charge made by 80 of our calvary on about 250 Mexicans, on the 20thof April, in which he behaved most gallantly. He fell from his horse when the ball struck him, but was almost instantly seen again supporting himself on one leg by his horse and had the satisfaction to kill the man who shot him. This was confirmed by one of the aids of General Houston, then present, who remarked that he was in a position to see the whole of it. He said that after Olwyn had laid the man dead at his feet, he sprang on his horse again, in the midst of the enemy’s cavalry, his own corps having retired and immediately urging him to his utmost speed, cutting his way through the ranks, and brandishing his sword at everything that opposed him, when, as the Aid remarked, they seemed to open for him to pass, and he entered the camp with his leg swinging like the pendulum of a clock.”
Olwyn’s thigh bone had been shattered. It was generally believed among those present that if he had received expert medical attention from the start he might have lived. The makeshift facilities are blamed for his demise about three weeks after the battle.
Upon his death he was buried with his comrades “with all the honors that could have been paid to the Commander in Chief; all the troops were under arms, and the officers of the Navy joined in the procession and minute guns were fired during its progress to the place of burial.”
Olwyn J. Trask’s name and gallantry were so revered in his home state of Massachusetts that young men went so far as to legally change their name to his.
In the years that followed, a community cemetery grew around these graves, but now part of the 10-acre site is partially covered by a parking lot for the battleship.
The deed records of Harris County shows that on November 2, 1837, Frances J. S. Trask, Olwyn’s sister, was living at Independence, Washington County, Texas and was on that day appointed representative of Israel Trask of Massachusetts, who was heir to the property of his deceased son. She was awarded the 640 acres of land due Trask’s services at San Jacinto, and used some of it to build a school. This school was the root of what would eventually grow into Baylor University.
Memorial Day seems an appropriate time to remember this young man,
and so many others, who have given their lives fighting for their beliefs and country.
Happy Royal Wedding Day!
Galveston and its port have long had a prosperous working relationship with Britain.
Arthur Thomas Lynn (1812-1888), who was described as remarkably handsome, came to Galveston from England while Texas was still a republic. He was appointed consul general for Great Britain in 1850, and was a beloved member of the community for the rest of his life.
This wonderful cabinet card photo of his grave marker was taken by local photographer Justus Zahn (1847-1918), and appears in my book “Galveston’s Broadway Cemeteries.” The marker is still visible and in Galveston’s Trinity Episcopal Cemetery.
The ‘Nancy Drew’ in me just loves running across gravestone mysteries like this one at Galveston Memorial Cemetery. I couldn’t wait to put on my ‘research hat’ and find out what it means.
This particular symbol is a marker for the Seven Society, founded in 1905. It is the most secretive of the University of Virginia‘s secret societies. Members are only revealed after their death, when a wreath of black magnolias in the shape of a seven is placed at the gravesite, the bell tower of University Chapel chimes at seven second intervals on the seventh dissonant chord when it is seven past the hour, and a notice is published in the universities alumni news.
The only known method to successfully contact the society is to place a letter at the Thomas Jefferson statue inside the university’s historic rotunda.
Definitely not a symbol often seen on gravestones on the Gulf Coast of Texas!
Valentine’s Day isn’t the only day that roses represent love. Some carved in stone symbolize an eternal affection for a lost loved one.
But did you know that how the roses are represented on the grave marker can tell you a bit about the dearly departed?
The rose itself symbolizes love, hope and beauty.
The stage of bloom of the rose indicates the age of the deceased. A bud would have represented a child, a partially opened flower would indicate someone was a teen or young adult, and a rose in full bloom would symbolize the departed had reached maturity.
No matter which stage of bloom the flower portrays, the stem is often depicted as broken as a sign that the person was lost too soon – a life cut short.
Two roses joined together stand for a strong bond such as marriage, and often appear on the joint marker of a couple.
A wreath of roses symbolizes beauty and virtue.
A garland of roses, which may be held by an angel, indicates sorrow, and a bouquet of roses stands for condolences, sorrow or grief.
So the next time you see the depiction of a rose on a gravestone, take a moment to decipher what information it can share.
Happy Valentine’s Day!