Today my family will celebrate Halloween en our traditional way as the Day of the Dead.
On the Day of the Dead, the boundaries between life and death begin to blur. Men, women and children of all ages honor and celebrate their loved ones who have passed away, participating joyously in a festival that has roots more than 3000 years old.
Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that is celebrated on October 31 - November 2 of each year. In Spanish, this holiday is called Día de los Muertos. Day of the Dead has gained worldwide popularity in recent years as it has spread from Mexico to America and beyond. It is now celebrated by Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and countless others around the globe who feel a deep kinship with these two special days that honor the dead.
Día de los Muertos is a time of celebration. Although losing someone is undeniably a somber and life-changing event, Día de Muertos provides people with the opportunity to rejoice in the living memories of their loved ones. It is a positive affirmation of the cycle of life and death, allowing people to reconnect with the spirits of their loved ones on the Other Side.
We were all born and one day we will all die, a concept that Día de los Muertos helps us acknowledge and internalize, so that we may live our lives with more awareness and meaning. The Aztecs developed the ritual some 3,000 years ago because they believed one should not grieve the loss of a beloved ancestor who passed. Instead, the Aztecs celebrated their lives and welcomed the return of their spirits to the land of the living once a year. That's where the food, drink and music offerings come in.
Mourning is not allowed because it was believed the tears would make the spirit's path treacherous and slippery. "This day is a joyous occasion; it's a time to gather with everyone in your family, those alive and those dead.” Día de los Muertos expresses the beauty and mystery of life and death. For many, it is a time of partying and celebration; for others, it is a time of introspection. At its most potent, it is a balanced blend of the two.
Altars are used to welcome the ancestors' spirits into the home. An alter generally has most if not all of the following, each item on an altar has special meaning.
Sugar skulls, tamales and spirits (the alcoholic kind) — these are things you might find on ofrendas, or altars, built this time of year to entice those who've passed to the other side back for a visit. Everything on an altar has special meaning.
Elaborately decorated sugar skulls are crafted from pure sugar and given to friends as gifts. The colorful designs represent the vitality of life and individual personality.
The ancestor's favorite meals are placed on the altar as offerings along with pan de los muertos. The semisweet breads are baked in the shape of bones, and dusted with sugar. They're also meant to represent the soil.
Pumpkin seeds or amaranth seeds are offered as snacks for the visiting ancestral spirit. Some of us make the skulls from the amaranth seeds.
Alcohol: Bottles are offered to toast the arrival of the ancestors. Pulque, a beverage made from sap of maguey or agave plant, is used in my family for ceremonial purposes only. Today, any alcoholic beverage favored by the dead can be used to toast their life and meaning to the family.
Photographs of loved ones who have died are placed on the altar.
Candles represent fire and are a light guiding them back to visit the land of the living.
It is also practice to visit the ancestral burial ground to celebrate with picnics and music. Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls also are placed on the altars.
Calacas are favorites among children. These toys are both for the dead and living children to play with. However, living children become acquainted with death by playing with them. A calaca may be selected that is reminiscent of a certain profession or hobby that was once enjoyed by the deceased. They can often be found crafted into silly caricatures of smiling wrestlers, nurses, musicians, brides, dentists, cowboys or pilots heartily enjoying the afterlife.
In Mexico, neighbors gather in local graveyards to share food, music and fun with their families and extended community, both living and departed.
Upon the eve of November 1st the souls of children are honored. Los ángelitos receive special offerings of toys, candies as well as other decadent sweets. Miniature representations of objects such as metates, tortilla presses and tools may also be crafted for the souls of the children to play with.
The following day and night of November 2nd is dedicated to adults. During the day the cemeteries are cleaned, tombs are repaired, scrubbed, painted and weeds are pulled. Around midday the bells of the church will begin to ring until the following morning to guide the souls home to their expectant families. In the evening the souls will be accompanied from their altars within the homes of their loved ones to the cemeteries where they will eventually begin their long journey back to the afterlife. Flower wreaths made of marigolds as well as petals are used to adorn the graves and candles are lit to guide the way. Offerings of pan de muerto, liquor, and other foods will often be brought to the cemeteries where families will hold overnight vigils alongside the graves. Throughout the night, mariachi music may be used to serenade the dead and family members will exchange stories and food until the souls of the dead are ready to depart once again.
These days Halloween traditions of "trick or treat" and halloween costumes also blend in with our tradition making it even richer with meaning and celebration.
However you spend your Halloween, make it a safe one. Avoid excess alcohol and by all means, Smoking is not required or desired! We're not yet ready to join our ancestors!