The trappings may seem ghoulish — skulls made of sugar, toy coffins, bread with the shapes of bones baked on top, dancing skeletons, midnight vigils in graveyards — but the Day of the Dead in Mexico is instead a joyous celebration of the lives of loved ones who have passed away.
“It is a wonderful, colorful, and warm holiday,” says Mary J. Andrade, editor of La Oferta, a Spanish-English weekly in San Jose, California, and the author of a series of books, Through the Eyes of the Soul, which explores the holiday in each region of Mexico (see www.dayofthedead.com). “It is hard for many people here to understand.” Linda McAllister, an anthropologist in Arizona who has filmed a documentary on the holiday, puts it this way: “It’s not a sad holiday. But it is reflective.”
Many non-Hispanics conflate Dia de los Muertos with Halloween. But Halloween once was a dark holiday, steeped in Celtic myths of demons who terrorized the living on one night of the year. Many historians believe that the practice of “trick or treat” grows out of the Celtic practice of trying to appease the wakened dead with offerings of food. The Day of the Dead, on the other hand, grows from the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, who thought of death as part of the cycle of life and welcomed the deceased back for an annual celebration with the loved ones left behind.
The Catholic Church, through the aegis of Spanish conquerors and ensuing missionaries, moved the holiday (originally celebrated in the summer) to coincide with All Saint’s Day (November 1, called Dia de los Angelitos, and dedicated to children — “little angels” — who have died) and All Soul’s Day (November 2, for the adult dead). Today the celebration represents a merging of pre-Colombian and Catholic beliefs. Mass, prayer vigils, and religious iconography have been incorporated into the festivities, and even in the United States, many Catholic churches with large Mexican and Mexican-American congregations — such as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose — host Day of the Dead observances.
In Mexico today, in fact, great pains are taken to make sure that the United States’ tradition of Halloween does not take over Dia de los Muertos. Gina Laczko, who helped put together many Day of the Dead celebrations for the Heard Museum in Phoenix, recalls visiting Mexico City and seeing the word Halloween in the red-circle-with-a-slash that universally means “no!”
In Mexico, says Andrade, celebrations vary from town to town, so there is no way to describe a “typical” celebration. Some — especially those in big cities — are more commercial; others are more spiritual. Andrade has seen celebrations held in graveyards, in daylight and after midnight, celebrations that resemble prayer vigils or picnics, songfests or dances.
Everywhere, though, people build altars upon which to display the photographs of the departed; often a personal object is placed there as well. Some are decorated with flowers or food. Pan de muertos — bread of the dead — is another constant, but recipes vary from region to region. Some are decorated with pieces of dough made to look like skulls and bones, others are shaped to honor a dead person’s life or hobbies; Andrade attended a celebration in which the bread was shaped like a car to honor a deceased taxi driver. Drinks are served, often hot chocolate but also mescal or tequila or beer. McAllister, visiting a cemetery in the southwestern United States, once spied a Big Gulp on a grave.
The foods made are primarily those favorites of the departed. “There is a ritual aspect in making the food,” says McAllister. “If you are mourning someone who died, and all of your neighbors and relatives come to help you make that person’s favorite foods, well, there’s a support network there.” Dishes are often strongly spiced moles (deeply complex sauces), chili dishes, and tamales. It is thought the scent of the dish — along with the scent of flowers (often orange marigolds) and incense (often a tree resin called “copal”) — help summon the dead person back to his or her home.
The food, says McAllister, “is there for the souls of the dead.” The souls are believed to inhale the scents, leaving the food itself for the living.
Laczko said the celebration “is a time of reunions, of people going back to their hometowns.It is a time when the adults tell the children the stories of their departed ancestors.”
Carlos Hasse, a Mexicanborn arts administrator living in Vermont, recalls the holiday. “It is truly moving,” he says. “Every Day of the Dead I think of my mother, and how, after her mother died, she would construct an altar for her. Even if she was too busy, she always put up a photograph and a candle.”