Day of the Dead
In many cultures throughout time, a festival marking the return or remembrance of the dead has been celebrated. Our Halloween originated from the Celtic festival Sahain at the end of October. It was considered the boundary between the end of summer (the old year) and the beginning of winter (the new year), a time when the veil between the natural and the supernatural worlds was thin, and the dead could return as spirits. When Christianity took root, the Catholic Church established All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd to provide religious alternatives.
But no festival is so lavish or fanciful as the Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico and Central America, which actually covers more than one day. Not only a remembrance of loved ones who have died, but also a celebration of life, with death considered as a part of the life cycle and not to be feared. While the festival is held on the Catholic feast days of November 1st and 2nd, its roots go back to
pre-historic times, to the Aztec, Mayan, and other native cultures.
The ancient harvest festivals featured skulls, originally kept as trophies, which symbolized death and rebirth. They were meant to honor the dead, who it was believed came back to visit at that time. Fires, incense, images of the dead, and offerings of ceramics, flowers, foods and drink, were parts of many of these festivals. These traditions mingled with the Catholicism brought by the Spaniards, and the result was El Dia de Los Muertos.
While there are variations according to ethnic roots in different regions, the main features of the celebration involve cleaning up and decorating gravesites with candles and elaborate arrangements and wreaths of flowers, usually marigolds. The candles and the scent of the flowers are meant to guide the dead home, with water and some salt set out for the journey. A vigil is kept in the cemetery, with families bringing picnic baskets of the deceased’s favorite foods, as stories are told about them, and often accompanied by music. On November 1st, infants and children who have died are remembered, and on November 2nd, it’s the adults who have died who are remembered.
A special spot in the home is cleared to set up a table covered with linens for an altar dedicated to relatives who have died. It is decorated with their photographs, colorful tissue paper cut outs and streamers, incense, candles, flowers, humorous skeleton figurines, candy skulls with the names of the departed on them, and their favorite food and drink.
A special sweet bread called pan de muertos is made for this occasion, often decorated with bone shapes on top. For departed children, toys and sweets are set up as well. A basin of water and a towel are provided so that the visiting souls can clean themselves after their journey.
What sets the Day of the Dead apart from other cultures’ memorial festivals is the sense of reflection and joy, rather than sadness and fear. Life is viewed as one long continuum, with death being merely a transition state. The love and connection with the deceased is renewed and celebrated at this precious time known as the Day of the Dead.