Sixteen years ago I took a life-changing study trip to Cuernavaca Mexico to help create a large art installation and learn more about Dia de los Muertes, The Day of the Dead. The holiday actually extends over two nights and three days, October 31 through November 2, and includes private family observances as well as the public revelry that has increasingly come to fuel popular imagination throughout the world.
The holiday came about when indigenous people embraced Catholicism. They moved their own holiday celebrating their dead loved ones (traditionally held in late summer) to the dates associated with the Christian calendar for Halloween, All Saints and All Souls. Additionally, they found aspects of the traditional Irish celebration of the holiday inspiring, and they put their own spin on those customs, which is why you will occasionally find Jack O Lanterns carved from gourds.
The traditional Mexican belief is that their loved ones who have passed away are especially close during the days of the holiday observance. To entice them to come back to the family fold, each family lays of path of marigold petals that leads from the border of their property to an ofrenda (altar) laden with candles, flowers, decorations such as sugar skulls and colorful paper cutouts, photos of the loved ones, their favorite foods and sometimes other things they loved (e.g., tequila and cigarettes.) Does every Mexican literally believe this? I got the feeling that for those who observe these customs, the holiday is mostly a time to honor memories and feel close to loved ones who have passed away, to ritualize the feeling that those who are gone from us are in some mysterious and ineffable way still with us. The family sits down to a traditional celebratory meal at least once during the holiday. I was very lucky to be a guest at a family meal of chicken mole prepared in a primitive kitchen with an open fire. Though the Torres family had little, they generously shared with us.
Another important observance occurs at cemeteries. Cemetery maintenance is not outsourced in Mexico. Families do it themselves. The families come to cemeteries, clean the graves and decorate them in whatever style they can afford. One of the more touching aspects of a visit to a Mexican cemetery is that there are many more recent graves for babies than you will generally find in a newer American cemetery.
Some families stay all night at the cemeteries, packing a picnic that they share by candlelight. The national holiday, observed on November 2, gives these families a chance to catch up on sleep.
In some neighborhoods, families who have lost a loved one within the past year open their homes to the public, who respectfully file by a body created with fruit and the clothes of the deceased. Visitors are supposed to give the family a candle, and as they leave they often receive a loaf of Pan de Muerte (sweet bread), a tamale, and/or a cup of Ponce (cane sugar punch) which is sometimes spiked.
Evolution of the Holiday Celebration
The town of Cuernavaca also hosted a large outdoor festival, with exhibits about the history of the holiday and papier mache skeletons depicted in a variety of everyday activities. This type of artwork and observance began to arise at the turn of the 20th century. It reflects a merging of traditional Mexican ideas and imagery with modern ideas about art and design. The festival tends to attract a sophisticated, well-to-do segment of society, as well as tourists.
On November 2 I accompanied David, a young man who was teaching art to poor children, to his classroom at La Estacion (the Station), a shanty town on the grounds of an old railway station that appeared in the film Romero. We brought the children skulls of sugar and chocolate and they shared their artwork with us.
Bringing Dias de Los Muertes Home
What did I gain from this trip (besides many photos, an addiction to traditional Mexican food and an appreciation for the Spanish language works of Ricky Martin)? I got a little bit of a headache from how much I was touched by overt displays of religion. I've always been a huge supporter of keeping church and state separate, but I found it touching--the little shrines in marketplaces, and how clerks at stores taped a card of their patron Saint to their checkout station. My own politics around separation of church and state have not changed (I don't think religious figures should be allowed to control people through government policies), but the whole experience gave me a lot to think about--how the Conquistadors tried to take away the indigenous culture, but instead the native people took the ideas that appealed to them from the Catholic tradition and created something awesome and unique to Mexico.
I gained an appreciation for Mexican values around family and community celebration. Fiesta is an important aspect of Mexican culture. The Day of the Dead is the most important holiday in traditional Mexican culture, their equivalent of our Christmas, but it is not associated with the kind of stress many Americans feel related to Christmas. Christmas observances have been poisoned by commercialism. People feel they have to look great, decorate their houses to the nth degree, and give fabulous, expensive gifts just to be socially acceptable at Christmas. It can be hard to enjoy family gatherings when everyone is frazzled and on edge, expecting to be judged by loved ones for not "doing Christmas" right.
Finally, perhaps the most important thing I got from my Day of the Dead experience was an appreciation for family, and my own family heritage. I started to become interested in Genealogy, and in connecting to far-flung family members.
If, like me, you find the Day of the Dead intriguing, the best way to bring the spirit of the holiday alive in your own life is to try and connect with family members, both those who are living and those who have died. Look through old photo albums with older relatives and get them to label the pictures, listen to stories and learn and record cherished family traditions. Give family heirlooms a place of pride in your own home and include family customs and stories in your holiday celebrations. The Day of the Dead is really just a way for the living to keep in touch with the people and values who have made us who we are today.