The Day of the Dead celebrations held on November 1st and 2nd acknowledge the culmination of the life cycle, and that death will come to us all. While it directly follows Halloween, the holiday is not designed to scare or bring sadness.
The Day of the Dead allows the living to honor those who have died – family, friends, ancestors, and pets. While its origins are from ancient Meso-American cultures, which range from Mexico to Honduras and El Salvador, anyone can adopt this annual observance and tailor this colorful celebration to remember their own deceased loved ones.
Starting with the Halloween connection, going back about 3,000 years, the ancient Celtic people believed that on October 31st the boundary between the living and the dead dissolved, allowing spirits of the deceased to cross over into the living world. To combat the Druid festival Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen) held this time of year, the Catholic Church moved All Saints’ Day – a.k.a. All Hallows’ Day – from mid-May to November 1. Halloween comes from abbreviating All Hallows’ Even, the evening before the day.
Meanwhile, over in the Western Hemisphere, indigenous peoples such as the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Toltec and other tribes in Mexico held rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors during the month of August. It corresponded with a festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl, The Lady of the Dead. When Catholic Spanish Conquistadors came to the New World more than 500 years ago, they tried to eradicate these native rituals that seemed to mock death and symbolized death and rebirth.
The ancient rituals refused to die in the face of forced conversion. So to make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it to correspond with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, November 1 and 2. In Mexico, Dia De Los Muertos as it is known in Spanish, often honors deceased children and infants on the first day, and deceased adults on the second day.
The early Meso-American attitude was that life is a dream, and death is the awakening to real life. The dead are considered to have semi-divine status, given permission to return once a year. They are to be welcomed, not feared.
How Day of the Dead is Celebrated
Today, Day of the Dead celebrations are held in Mexico, parts of Central and Latin America, in the Southwest U.S., and some European countries. In Mexico, the celebrations are elaborate, even more so than Christmas observances. Parades and profuse decorations in homes and cemeteries make this time of year a tourist spectacle.
Families visit cemeteries to clean the graves of loved ones, decorate them with flowers and candles, and commune with the spirits of the departed. Often, they picnic in the cemetery, bringing the deceased’s favorite food and drink.
When the Church granted magical curative powers to relics, it was extended to the use of milagros, Spanish for miracles, metal charms in the shape of body parts that need healing. This gave rise to specially shaped Day of the Dead foods, such as sugar skulls and pan de muerto, sweet egg bread baked in the shape of skulls or bones. These can be offerings to the dead or eaten by the living.
Colorful parades are held with people dressed as skeletons, a reminder that in death, we actually continue life. Skull masks and artwork of skeletons doing everyday activities, such as dancing, bicycle riding, and eating and drinking, remind us that the everlasting soul continues on, separate from the body.
The celebration continues in the home, welcoming the dead with respect and devotion. Some families will make an elaborate dinner, set out the food and not eat it until the next day, to let the spirits eat first. They may also make the bed with fresh sheets to allow the spirits to rest after their long journey to earth. And they construct ofrendas, individualized altars with offerings to maintain relations with the dead.
Making an Ofrenda or Altar
You don’t have to be Mexican to honor your loved ones with a Day of the Dead altar in your home and welcome their spirits for a visit. Start by setting up a table with photos of the deceased, and their ashes if you have them. Don’t forget to include departed pets!
Decorate around the photos with flowers and candles. Set out foods and beverages that they used to enjoy. Play the music they loved. Put art objects they collected or artwork they created on or near the altar. Write messages to them and place the notes next to their photos. Include items from pets’ lives, such as toys, leashes, treats, and tags.
Traditional ofrendas have items that represent the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. A glass of water is included, to give the spirits a drink after their long journey. Tissue paper sheets with elaborate cutout designs, called papel picado, represent air, as they move with the gentlest breeze. Flowers and a bowl of salt often represent the earth, and candles provide fire.
Marigolds are the flower of choice for Day of the Dead decorating. Their pungent scent is said to guide souls to earth, and marigolds are often still blooming in late October. Flowers can be arranged in an arch, along with sheets of papel picado, representing the connection from earth to heaven.
Create the altar prior to Halloween, and keep it up for as long as it feels right. Photograph the altar for posterity. Each year presents a new opportunity to remember and honor those who meant so much to us while they lived. Inevitably, there will be new faces to add as the years go by.