Around Halloween, it’s quite the norm to see skulls and fall-colored flowers as home décor. But when you see these decorations after All Hallows’ Eve, especially on November first and second, they just might signify Dia de La Muertos, The Day of the Dead.
Well, there’s nothing “wo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o” about this holiday. A time when families celebrate the lives of deceased relatives, it’s a popular tradition in Mexico, many Latin American countries, and the American southwest. Families often build an ofrenda, or altar, to honor the deceased loved one. Here in Ventura County, California, the kids at the Boys and Girls Club built altars honoring extinct and endangered animals! And an Irish family built an altar for the late grandmother, both to honor her memory and to teach their kids about another culture.
An ofrenda is a bright, colorful memorial display designed for joy, not mourning or sadness. It is often a simple stack of boxes arranged in tiers, with the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages set out, as well as much-loved knick-knacks, photos, and candles. You might even see small soaps and grooming aids in case his/her spirit comes home and wants to gussy up for the trip back. Marigolds are the main Dia De La Muertos flower, and most altars include profusions of the golden blooms in vases or on overhead arches.
And we can’t forget the candy sugar skulls!
They are called calaveras de azucar, and are inscribed with the name of the dead loved ones and eaten in their honor.
More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in the area of today’s Mexico, they encountered native peoples practicing a ritual dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl that seemed to mock death by celebrating the dead. Skulls were a powerful symbol.
The indigenous people had practiced this ritual for at least 3,000 years, during the entire ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, which is approximately today’s August. Although the Spaniards considered the ritual pagan and sacrilegious, the old Aztec rite refused to die.
In the Spaniards’ attempts to convert the Aztecs to Catholicism, the Days of the Dead were moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1 and 2), when Christians honor those who have passed on before. These dates remain today.
Nothing about Dia de la Muertos reflects the fright and horror of All Hallows’ Eve. In fact, skeletal figurines, the calacas and catrinas, are usually depicted laughing and cavorting and wearing bright clothes.
On the Day of the Dead, the favorite foods of the departed person are prepared as well as bread, salt and water to help the spirit on its journey back. Candied pumpkin is a delicious treat, and special bread, called pan de muerto, is made from egg-rich dough flavored with anise and orange. The shapes vary regionally, but often reflect the shape of skull bones, although some bakers shape humans and animals.
The souls of children, or los angelitos are said to return on the first day of celebration. They are honored with miniature pan de muerto. The adult spirits, who return a day later, receive only the finest foods, dishes that require many ingredients and complex preparation. Specialties include mole, turkey or chicken in a chocolate chili sauce, and tamales, corn dumplings filled with meat and chili steamed in corn husks. Supposedly spirits take in the aromas of these foods since they cannot eat; therefore the more pungent and spicy, the better The foods are often displayed on the ofrenda, later eaten by the family or given away. Edible marigolds are included in many recipes.
Like the Aztecs, today’s central symbol in Day of the Dead festivities is the skull. Celebrants make and wear masks and dance to honor their loved ones. Masks range from expensive, cutting-edge pieces of fine art to simple children’s crafts, such as cutting eye holes from paper plates.
The whole idea of this festival is embracing life and an afterlife full of joy. Sometimes a gravesite itself becomes an ofrenda full of flowers and favorite foods, and the family picnics nearby.
Have you ever built an ofrenda or seen one? A sugar skull? What traditions are special to your family, neighborhood, or culture? Please share some of them with us today!
And don’t forget to enter our “Cowboy Under the Christmas Tree” contest while you’re here!