Like many people, I have lost too many loved ones in my life. From a very early age I lost my father, then my grandfathers, and since then an aunt, a grandmother, close friends, and many others. As a child I found it hard to talk about death, to find the words to explain my emotions, and I’m sure those close to me did too. Where I come from, death, and the dead, are talked about with lower voices, graveyards are visited a few times a year, and we somehow focus on the darker parts of life rather than celebrating the beautiful sides. But when I met my other half he introduced me to a very important tradition from his country (Mexico), and I knew straight away that we would celebrate this day together every year from then on. I’ve always been a huge Halloween fan (once a goth always a goth!), but adding the tradition of Día de Muertos to my usual end of October/beginning of November celebrations felt just right.
The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos as it is more accurately called, originated in Mexico, but is celebrated throughout Latin America, as well as in Latin American communities in the US. The actual celebration comes from traditional Aztec rituals of honoring the deceased, which were later on combined with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1st and 2nd).
On October 31st children usually create altars to encourage little “angelitos” (angels) to come back to visit, on November 1st deceased adults are encouraged to come over and join in, and on the 2nd families traditionally visit the graves of their loved ones. (As a side note my other half is fully indigenous Mexican and we are working hard on making sure our children inherit a strong sense of their Native American heritage, so teaching our children the real origins of holidays is very important to us).
Celebrations include, but are not limited to: the creation of altars, parades and ritual dances, the cleaning and decorating of tombs and cemeteries, parties, and festivals. The basic idea is that we celebrate the dead, and they celebrate with us, joining in with our dances, parties, and fun. You have probably seen many pictures of “calacas” or skulls, and skeletons all dressed up, as well as people dressed in traditional Mexican clothing with beautiful elaborate skull face paint: these are all decorations used to portray the beauty, the fun, and the vibrancy of celebrating the deceased, rather than turning to the darkness of mourning in sadness. Think color, music, food, and happiness!
An ofrenda (altar) is a personal offering to the dead, and it can be made from and with anything you like. Traditional altars may contain photos of deceased family members and loved ones, items they enjoyed, food, drink, little treasures, calacas and lots of Cempaspuchitl (Mexican or Aztec marigolds) that are thought to guide spirits to and from the underworld. Sugar skulls and pan de muerto are also made for the visiting dead, and placed on the altar. Our ofrenda has been growing every year and usually takes over our table for a few days. It includes photos, drawings, many different calacas, poems, stories, food, flowers, candles, drinks, and candy. We explain to our children who all of the people are, who they were to us, and why we celebrate their lives. It’s a great way to make sure our young ones understand the circle of life and also that they know they are always allowed to ask questions about family members who are not here anymore.
We live in California where there is a very large Mexican and Chicano (Mexican American) population, and there are always parades and festivals leading up to the Día de Muertos. It’s a good way for us to feel part of a community, especially in the current political climate here, and also a way to pass the traditions on to future generations.
If you are interested in learning more about the holiday, check out this wonderful website here. Wikipedia also has a great page right here, and here is some more information on the traditions. Here are some examples of altars for inspiration, and here are some recipes to try out! I also recommend watching the movie Coco with your kids, as it’s a lovely, albeit not complete, depiction of the holiday and the meaning of it. As always, if you have any questions let us know in the comment section below!
(I do ask that if you are interested in celebrating this holiday that you are mindful of the significance and importance of it in indigenous communities. For example, the traditional Día de Muertos skulls have a lot of meaning and are not just fun costumes for Halloween. As with any cultural tradition it is important to avoid appropriating and/or turning it into something that it is not).