This time of year we buy pumpkins, decorate our homes, offices, and schools with cobwebs and other scary objects and the amount of candy in our homes starts to quickly multiply. Some call this the start of the holiday season – one holiday after the next. And while many people are celebrating Halloween, we take some extra time to learn about the Dia de los muertos – Day of the Dead.
Don’t confuse Dia de los Muertos with Halloween. They are actually two different holidays and the Day of the Dead technically lasts 3 days, hence why some people call it the days of the dead. The painted skulls, called calaveras, are often seen on display, might give off a scary appearance, however, this holiday isn’t meant to be spooky or frightening.
We have to go back hundreds of years to uncover the roots of this ancient tradition. For thousands of years there have been practices of remembering and honoring ancestors, so celebrating lost lives was a typical tradition and was also practiced among the Aztecs. The Day of the Dead was originally in the Summer and would last for a month, but with the influence of the Catholic faith and Western culture, it was eventually moved to All Saints Day which is November 1st.
To celebrate Dia de Muertos, in the evening on the 31st of October children make an altar that is used to invite the spirits of children who have passed away, to come back and visit. November 1st is for remembering infants and children and November 2nd is for remembering adults. Typically families visit the graves of departed loved ones on November 2nd and during this time of year they clean the graves and decorate them.
It doesn’t always have to be a solemn event, but can also be a time of laughter and remembering the good times as people gather together and share loving stories of good memories. The altars can be decorated with photos, drinks, books, or other objects that remind them of certain people. It’s even possible to see people having a picnic together in the graveyard!
The sugared skulls aren’t the only symbol of this holiday. Although these skulls are everywhere and are a common gift to give, not only at the altar but also to children and friends, there are other symbols too. The altars are often decorated in Mexican Marigolds, a beautiful round multi-layered flower that is a deep yellow/orange color. They say this flower attracts the souls of the dead and that because of its strong scent and bright color it is a guiding light to the souls and helps them find their way back home.
Along with flowers and skulls, there is a special bread that is prepared – pan de muerto. It is a sweet bread and you can find it in the bakeries in the weeks leading up to the holiday. The bread is not only eaten but also presented as an offering at the altar. The bread is round-shaped and can have decorations on the top that looks like bones. Here is a link to a recipe if you’d like to try to make it at home yourself!
It is always fun to explore another aspect of a different culture when we are so close to each other on a daily basis! The kids have had so much fun making their own calaveras and helping build a mini altar. Maybe you’ll just start making some pan de muerto as a tradition in your own home every November.