Each year in Mexico, and in many Hispanic communities around the United States, people celebrate the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) between October 31 and November 2. While it may sound a bit macabre, it's actually a joyful celebration, honoring the memories of those who have died in the past year. Today's Day of the Dead festivals are a blend of old Aztec tradition merged with modern Catholic beliefs.
Author Sheena Morgan says in The Real Halloween that the original, pre-Christian celebration took place in late August, and coincided with the migration of Monarch butterflies. The Aztecs believed that the Monarchs were the souls of the dead, returning to their homes. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, celebrations were moved to early November, and blended indigenous customs with observance of Christian holy days.
Today, people of Mexican descent celebrate the Day of the Dead with picnics, elaborate altars, parades, and visits to cemeteries. Altars include colored tissue ribbons, flowers, photos of the dead, and candles. It's also popular to include food offerings with a theme of death - sugar skulls and coffins are a common item, as are small figures made of bread.
Sonja Rosales is a Mexican-American living in South Carolina. She says that for her family and many others, this is not a day of mourning, but a day of happiness. "It's a chance for us to remember the dead with love. We start by honoring the angelitos, the children who are deceased, and then we remember the older people. We go to the graveyard and have a picnic. My husband brings a guitar and we sing songs. My children laugh and play among the gravestones. I know that our ancestors are there, and they are happy that we remember them."
If you'd like to celebrate the Day of the Dead in your own family, you can either incorporate it into your Samhain festivities, or hold it as a separate event. Here are some ways you can observe the Day of the Dead, no matter what your cultural background may be.
- Build an ancestor shrine in your home, so that everyone in your family can remember the dead.
- Make sugar skulls, or calaveras, and coffins.
- If your loved ones are buried nearby, visit their graves. Clean up the headstone if it's looking shoddy, and leave a small gift or token of your visit.
- Prepare a special dinner for your family, and include a place setting for those who have died. You can either make it formal and serious, like the Dumb Supper, or joyous and fun - it's up to you. Decorate the dinner table with lots of candles and flowers.
- Hold a ritual to honor your deceased ancestors. Make offerings if appropriate.
- Adorn your home with skulls, skeletons, and other symbols of death.