“The Mexican is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
Octavio Paz, Mexican writer and diplomat, 1914 – 1998
It is interesting that one of the most fascinating and mystical of Mexican holidays, La Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, is actually less about death than it is about life. At it’s core lay an essential aspect of the Mexican identity . . . embracing death as a part of the cycle of life, as Octavio Paz has so eloquently expressed in the quote above. This elaborate holiday is no longer exclusively Mexican, however. It has woven itself into the culture of the American West, bringing with it more pomp than Mardi Gras and more haunting figures than Halloween.
La Dia de los Muertos is a day to honor those who have passed from this earth, to remember them and to rejoice in their lives. It is believed that at the stroke of midnight on October 31st, the gates of heaven are thrown open and the souls of deceased children visit their earthly families for twenty-four hours. On November 2nd, the souls of deceased adults visit to enjoy the festivities. And, boy, are there festivities!
The celebration of La Dia de los Muertos occurs in the home and in the cemetery amid bouquets of flowers, banquets of bread, and ghostly candies ornamented with skulls. As the spirits of the deceased visit, it is believed that they also enjoy their favorite food and drink, called ofrendas, lavishly laid out on altars and shrines. There are tortillas, meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, candies and Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead breads). There are also sodas, hot chocolate, water and tequila. And no Day of the Dead altar would be complete without intricate sugar skulls, sugar skeletons and small, vibrantly colored, sugar coffins, which are sold at Feria de Alfinique, sugar skull fairs . Lux Perpetua, votive candles, flame day and night, illuminating the wild marigold flowers, Flor de Muertos, which adorn the altars and the graves. Photographs of the departed are placed, everywhere. Toys are left for the youthful spirits. Cigarettes are left for the older spirits. There are also toiletries for the spirits to “freshen up” from their journey, as well as basins of water, soap and razors. There is music, celebration, memories, and a joyous time is had by all.
In many cities in the western United States, La Dia de los Muertos celebrations have become sought-after social events. There are cultural exhibits, street fairs and grand parties. These fiestas are artsy, hip and oh-so-chic. Many party-goers attend these affairs with their faces painted like the figures that adorn the altars, and dressed in traditional Mexican attire. These public venues still contain all of the trappings of the more intimate Mexican home celebrations, but on a much grander scale.
On La Dia de los Muertos, celebrate! Parents may be able to find local museums or cultural institutions that have exhibits designed to educate children about the Day of the Dead. And, it’s a wonderful opportunity to remember your own ancestors. La Dia de los Muertos is not a time to grieve; it is a time to celebrate life.
Happy Trails, y’all!