In recent years, the Day of the Dead and its images have become a big part of mainstream American Halloween celebrations, but there is so much more to the history of this holiday than the “sugar skull” image that is commonly recognized. Many people equate Halloween and the Dia de los Muertos, but truly they are quite different. The Day of the Dead celebration, both in Mexico, and by those who celebrate traditionally here in the United States, is a multiple day celebration to honor loved ones that have passed on. No matter where you celebrate, there are a few universal traditions that you are likely to encounter.
One of the most recognizable images representing the Dia de los Muertos is “la catrina,” which is a skeleton, with ornate face makeup and bright colorful clothes, representing “death.” It may seem odd to some that death is represented as something beautiful, but that is exactly how Mexican culture celebrates the holiday and honors their loved ones.
The Day of the Dead is actually made up of three days of celebration. Beginning October 31st and ending on November 2nd, and coinciding with Catholic tradition of All Saints Eve, All Saints Day, and all Souls Day. While there are innumerable traditions found all over Latin America, there are some that can be found in nearly all Dia De Muertos celebrations.
An integral part of the holiday involves making an altar, una ofrenda, or multiple ofrendas to honor the deceased. These altars can be set up in homes, in businesses, in churches and at gravesites. It is believed that by constructing these altars, and placing certain items on them, the dead will be able to return to the land of the living to visit on these special days. Most commonly altars will include photos of the deceased loved ones, candles, favorite foods and drinks that the deceased enjoyed in their lives and the traditional flor de muerto, the Mexican Marigold.
In addition to constructing the altars, families take this time to visit the graves of those who have passed on, clean them and decorate them. Unlike the United States, most cemeteries are not maintained by any public government or church group, so the families take on the responsibility during the celebration time. It is common for families to bring small toys to leave for the spirit children to play with, and tequila or mezcal for the adult spirits to enjoy after their journey home. Loved ones will often gather to have picnics, making sure to bring food and drink to share with both the living and the dead in attendance. Nearly all graveside picnics are sure to include a special sweet bread, pan de muerto, often flavored with pumpkin or anise, and atole, similar to American hot cocoa, made with corn masa, cinnamon, vanilla and milk.
As mentioned for decorating the altars, a recognizable part of the Dia de Meuertos celebration, especially in Mexico includes the Aztec Marigold, a bright orange flower with fragrant petals. The belief is that the smell of this specific flower will help guide the spirits home for their visit. While families gather in cemeteries, or around private altars, telling stories, and sharing memories of their loved ones, the spirits are said to follow the trail of flowers, and familiar foods to join the living in their celebration.
Local resident Laura Serna Maytorena fondly recalls bringing the family traditions from her youth into her home when she started her own family. She and her husband and children set up an altar in their home every year, and when her children were young, they went about choosing which pictures of loved ones to include together, as a family while telling stories and sharing memories. Laura and her family are also responsible for bringing the celebration to the local community. Laura shares that even many of her non-Latino friends have begun adopting the traditions as a way to honor their deceased loved ones. In addition to individuals that have been inspired by Laura’s family, The Unitarian Universalist Church on 3rd Street in Marietta, OH will feature a local Dia de Muertos service this coming Sunday November 4th, at 11:00 a.m. The service will feature an ofrenda where attendees can place the representations of their loved ones as well. This is the only public Day of the Dead celebration of its kind in our community.