Little Altars Everywhere…and Dia de los Muertos

We have a few family Halloween traditions. Jay has always been the pumpkin carver, and our children, young and old, come over and we enjoy the time together. I’m not tremendously enthusiastic about Halloween, but it’s fun to see what the girls will choose for their costumes and then to watch their eyes bulge at the glory of so much sugary loot!

Little Red Riding Hood and a little hippie girl. Karina doesn’t really know what a hippie is, but she wanted the tambourine.

Suspense and a little creepy is fine with me, but I don’t like anything even approaching violence or horror. I’m not sure I even really like skeletons.

So with my aversion to some of the typical symbols of Halloween it took me many years to finally take the time to understand Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. Because I didn’t understand the celebration, it seemed oddly out-of-place to see very young children playing with skeletons, carrying sugary skulls and wearing skeleton masks. I just didn’t like it.

In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday celebrated on November 1, connected to All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day (November 2). Observance of the holiday can be traced back to an ancient Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, but the holiday has spread throughout the world. The celebration honors the departed souls of loved ones who are welcomed back for a few hours. Many of the themes and rituals are pre-Columbian and mixtures of indigenous practices and Catholicism, including building private altars with favorite foods and beverages, photos and memorabilia of departed loved ones. Entire families may  spend the day cleaning and decorating graves and “picnicking” in the cemetery.

Traditions and activities vary according to region and in Southern California there have been signs of Dia de los Muertos for weeks now. Museums have invited school children to submit masks and paintings for parades and processions. Small tokens of folk art are sold for home altars. Local cemeteries participate in celebrations promising a party atmosphere.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery, known as the final resting place for Marilyn Monroe and many other Hollywood celebrities, is hosting the largest  Dia de Los Muertos celebration in California this weekend, with hundreds of Aztec dancers in full costume, regional arts and crafts and plenty of authentic Mexican food. Costumes and celebratory artifacts are encouraged.

This video from last year’s Hollywood Forever festivities will show you how the face painting and makeup, ghoulish and macabre, can be a little disturbing if the meaning and significance is misunderstood.

In the Mexican tradition the focus is to gather friends and family together to remember loved ones. Love and care go into creating altars and the laying out of offerings for the dead.

Tradition says that when the souls visit the altars they cannot eat or drink what is offered, but they absorb the energy and aroma of the food. Candles are lit to welcome the spirits, and incense is burned to guide the spirits back to the altars. Marigolds also have a strong fragrance and the petals are sprinkled in front of the altar and on paths.

Salt is placed in receptacles or placed in the shape of a cross, representing the continuance of life and photos and special objects representing the life of the deceased are placed in honor of the loved one. Altars also usually include the dead person’s favorite foods, as well as sugar skulls, fresh fruit and a special “bread of the dead,” pan de muerto.

I visited the 29th Annual Day of the Dead Altars & Ephemera exhibit at Pasadena’s The Folk Tree. The exhibit featured traditional altars in memory of loved ones who have passed as well as a very large selection of Mexican folk art commemorating this major Mexican holiday.

I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to take photos of the altars. They were very personal and moving and a camera was intrusive. I noted altars of all shapes, sizes and dedicated to people of all ages. Some of the more emotionally sensitive altars were dedicated to the memory of children. A large altar was dedicated to the memory of Neil Armstrong, and another to Dick Clark. Both were very detailed and provided space for visitors to leave notes and blessings. The altar dedicated to Dick Clark offered small paper disks/vinyl records for visitors to inscribe personal messages.

Items sold for decorating altars
Altars are sometimes made public or remain in the home.

I appreciate the tradition, although very different from my own cultural heritage, because it offers such a unique way of keeping the memories of loved ones alive.   Although the symbols aren’t particularly comforting to me, I’ve had it explained that skeletons and skulls are not considered objects of fear, but instead are ways of mocking death. The festivals celebrate the unity of life and death.

Dia de los Muertos is a celebration that honors the dead, and although from a typical American perspective it may appear to be an irreverent celebration, it is not meant to in any way trivialize death, but instead to represent and affirm the belief in an afterlife and ease grief.

Perhaps if you see evidence of  Day of the Dead celebrations this year you’ll take a closer look. And perhaps there will be aspects of this celebration that will have meaning for you, too.

Mexican poet Octavio Paz (Nobel Prize, Literature) explained the relationship Mexicans have with death in his book, El Laberinto de la Soledad.

In translation he says:

For a resident of New York, Paris or London death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. A Mexican, on the other hand,  frequents it, defies it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it’s one of his favorite toys and his most permanent love.”

48 thoughts on “Little Altars Everywhere…and Dia de los Muertos

  1. Your granddaughters look so cute. What gorgeous costumes. I love how they’re not gory or frightening but instead innocent and sweet. They must have had a wonderful night. My poor Alfie ate so much candy he went to bed late and had a shocking nightmare. I think it was sugar overload plus all the gory and frightening skeletons and ‘haunted house’ signs he’d seen while trick or treating. I’m quite relieved it’s over for another year – and that we don’t have that Day of the Dead festival! xx

    1. I was so sorry to hear that Alfie had a very bad night after his Halloween adventures. I had enjoyed seeing photos of him all dressed up and happy! But it is so true that with all the sugar and hyper-activity, paired with really scary stuff, it’s almost too much! It’s too much for me, too! 🙂 Hope he’s feeling much better now!

  2. Pingback: Weekly Image Of Life: Stories And Photographs | this man's journey

  3. Before I read the capture, I thought your granddaughter was also celebrating Octoberfest as a Fraulein.

    Great post about the festival … and just another example that everything has a history. Plus I love cultural stuff!

    1. Without her hood we thought little miss Riding Hood looked like Heidi, too, Frank! They had a good time. I enjoyed sharing about Day of the Dead festivities and learned a lot of extra detail in preparing the post. I am so glad to hear that you enjoy exploring about other cultures. I am sure you’ve expanded on your knowledge a lot with the wonderful trips you’ve taken! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. What angelic children… love this post, it helped me to understand other cultural undertakings… we do not have anything like this where I am, and to be quite honest It all seems to me a bit like Christmas, that it has lost its original meaning and all become a little too commercialised… … which seems such a pity when I read your post… but thanks I loved it.. and I love to learn something new, be it daily or whenever I get the chance…

    1. I’m glad you stopped by to read about the Day of the Dead festivities, BD. It is very meaningful to those who celebrate, and I can assure you that many, if not most, Angelenos don’t really understand what it is about. My little granddaughters thought Halloween was great, so I play along! 🙂

  5. I’ve heard of this celebration, Debra, but haven’t ever read such an extensive explanation. I will be glad to remember the Day of the Dead going forward, because it really is an honor to those who have come before us, and to what we will become.

    1. I enjoyed reading more about Dia de los Muertos than I previously knew, too, Andra. I’ve seen the altars and works of art for most of my life, but only recently decided I would like to know more. I bought a few little icons at the Folk Tree and brought them home. I love the idea of creating little memorials, and will probably spend some time thinking about how to incorporate a small part of the tradition into my own home. I’m glad I could share a bit! 🙂

  6. Pingback: Dia De Los Meurtos- Craft and Altar « thepurplebroom

  7. Your Granddaughters are as cute as ever, Debra! I never realized the youngest was named Karina, “Pretty One”. How fitting!
    Another blog i follow, a British ex-pat living in Spain, explained her community’s observance of Dia de los Muertos. As you can well imagine, the themes are very similar, with homage being paid to one’s ancestors. I find the customs both fascinating and, in a way, comforting. It’s a recognition of the Circle of Life. We honor those who come before us and, in so doing, we acknowledge those who will come after us. Our own culture would benefit from a little of this.

    1. John, I didn’t know Karina meant “pretty one!” Her mommy may know that, but I didn’t! It was fun to experience Halloween through their eyes…otherwise I don’t care for it much. But I am also very sensitive to how Dia de los Muertos could be very meaningful and I read that in some countries people spend all year long working on the altar for the coming celebration. A lot of love goes into that. I appreciate your thoughts, too, John. I know that you have such a strong sense of family that you do understand. Tomorrow is All Soul’s Day, as you referenced earlier in the week, so I will remember you have a special dish to share! 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed hearing a little bit more about Dia de los Muertos and how it is celebrated in Los Angeles, Kate. I have been fascinated for a long time, but have only recently done enough reading to better understand the deeper layers of meaning. I think you’d enjoy the little shop I visited and the beautiful and colorful altars. THey are great examples of folk art, and inspire a lot of thought! 🙂

  8. Oh, don’t they look adorable? Tom was always the pumpkin carver in our house when the girls were young (and not so young) as well. Try living with an artist carving a pumpkin. Never dull.

    I knew of some of these customs, but, you describe it all in such detail here. I would find it fascinating. Celebrating the lives of those who came before us seems like such an interesting way to honor the dead. We have some strong Mexican communities nearby – I’ll be more intuitive toward their celebration next year. Thank you, dear Debra.

    1. I think Tom would be either amused or disturbed at how Jay wields that carving knife! We have to keep reminding him that children are present! 🙂 That’s part of the story, I guess! ha! I’m glad you enjoyed learning a few more details about the Day of the Dead, Penny. I learned so much by visiting the shop with all the altars on display. I really do wish I could have shared photos because they were so elaborate. I did buy a sugar skull and a little skeleton…I may see if I can add to the collection over time and create my own little memorial spot. I might try to attend one of the festivals sometime. There just never is enough time, is there! Have a great weekend, Penny.

  9. Anonymous

    I celebrate Dia de muertos, is a very special day to some how feel connected with our beloved ones that have departed, to honor them and we welcome them home for a short period of time. Families get together to cook, eat and celebrate life and death, celebrate that we are alive and that when our turn comes with Catrina , she will be welcome to take us with out fear but with a smile knowing we lived our lives in plenitude. And we will be back to caress who ever remember us every november.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing about the special festivities from your personal perspective. I read a little bit about Catrina, but I am sure I have yet to fully understand the special qualities of the holiday and family activities. I will continue to learn, because I find the tradition really beautiful. I hope you enjoy your festivities this year and find the time honoring your own loved ones rich and very special.

  10. Dear Debra, I’d heard little about this feast day before reading your post today. But your respect for this tradition and the culture that embraces it is so enlightening and heartening. It drew me into your story and I found myself thinking of how my own culture distances itself from death and the afterlife and the continuation of Oneness within and among us. How we want all the tests and all the treatments that might expand our lives a few more weeks.

    We seem so frightened of growing old, older, oldest. Death terrifies so many of us. So we hold on tight to life.

    I suppose we could all write postings about why we think that is. But now that I am one of those “old, older, oldest” ones I find myself considering death and the span of my life and how the love of my mother and father and all those who raised me and educated me and befriended me lives on within me. I hope that I have passed that love forward and that it will continue to live on in the lives of those who have passed this way with me. Peace.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful thoughts about Dia de los Muertos, Dee. I am always so impressed by the depth with which you communicate your thoughts. I do believe the American culture doesn’t quite know what to do with aging, illness or death. I love the Mexican tradition that acknowledges death as a reality, but then also suggests that loved ones are not gone or far away, but close enough to be part of a yearly celebration. I am in agreement with you, too, Dee, that as we get older we think differently about our mortality and wonder more about those we have loved and lost. I believe that simply asking if you have passed love forward enough to live on into the future tells me that yes, you have. You ask a lot of yourself every day, Dee, and have such a good heart for others. You inspire me more than you know!

      I’m going to try again tonight to visit your post from earlier this week. I couldn’t leave a comment again yesterday…but I was on a different computer. That may be why! oxo

  11. Your granddaughters look PRECIOUS. I thought “Heidi” until I read “Red Riding Hood.” 😀

    Village of the Arts, the Gulf Coast’s largest Art Community, celebrates the 7th Annual Dia de los Muertos this weekend ~ the Festival of the Skeletons. There will be: Mexican Music & Food, a Village Community Shrine, a Memory Wall for Loved ones, and shrines and altars at the galleries throughout the village. The weather sounds perfect for communing with the departed souls of loved ones.

    1. We said, “Heidi,” too, Nancy. We kept telling Sophia that she needed to keep her hood up…but she didn’t. LOL! The Village of the Arts festival sounds really wonderful. I love the idea of a community shrine and a Memory Wall. I think ceremonies of this magnitude serve a good purpose and I’d love to participate in something with such deep meaning. I guess I kind of got my “toes wet” this year, and maybe by next year I’ll find an art project or something that stands as my own little altar. Let us know if you have any opportunity to be part of this weekend’s celebration! It really sounds like it will be well done!

      1. We do plan to attend . . . as long as the weather and our energy levels cooperate. There is LOTS going on this weekend now that we are waking up from summer slumber.

        If I go, I’ll take photos to share.

  12. Since we don’t have a tradition for Halloween in Norway it’s great to learn more about the way you do it and the background for the celebration. Karina and her friend look adorable.

    1. Thank you, Otto. The history behind Halloween in the United States is kind of an interesting story in itself, but I’m not all that fascinated by the way we celebrate. Children think it’s great, though…costumes and ridiculous amounts of candy! Ha! THey collect it, and then parents try to limit how much of it they eat. Sounds like a strange arrangement, doesn’t it? Ha! THe Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos is just coincidentally very close to Halloween, but is almost a religious ceremony. I enjoy learning about how cultures different from my own create meaning with celebrations and festivals. Thank you for stopping by, Otto.

  13. Eha

    Thank you so much for further enlightening me as to the Mexican ways of celebrating a day held in respect worldwide – this will be reposted !

    1. Thank you Eha. I am really glad you enjoyed learning more about Dia de los Muertos. I find the celebration very fascinating and full of meaning. I am sure there are many facets of the celebration that I still don’t fully understand, but I am going to continue to learn more about it. We have a very large Mexican population and with an ancient culture, there are so many symbols that would be worth studying. I need more time! 🙂 Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a nice comment.

  14. I think I was Little Red Riding Hood when I was about that age:) This brings back so many great memories of Trick or Treating and the innocence of childhood. I’m not sure why Hallowe’en had to become a horror fest of movies, etc. Even in Mexico, the date has significance because they are remembering loved ones. I remember when my son studied the Day of the Dead and they had some festivities at his school. It’s great for all of us to know about these sorts of cultural celebrations. Thank you for sharing this!

  15. Your granddaughters look adorable! 😀 And you explained very well what Dia De Los Muertos is all about. I have heard of a culture that instead of having a sad funeral they actually party when a person dies in celebration that the soul is going Home. Have you heard of this? I read this is brief years ago but can’t remember the culture.

  16. I love looking at the carved pumkins and the wicked witches costumes from other countries. Here in South Africa the children might do some crafts at school but in general it is not something which is celebrated on a big scale.

  17. Another really fascinating post, Debra. Your blog is doing wonders for my education. 🙂 Your granddaughters look so sweet and I like the fact that they are a fairy-tale character and a hippie, rather than a spook or a skeleton.

    I’ve heard of the Day of the Dead, but never knew anything in detail about it, so very much enjoyed your explanation. I agree that death has become the unmentionable in western society, hence all the euphemisms and the attitude that death is somehow a failure of medicine, rather than the natural end of life. I was at church today for a combined All Saints/All Souls service and death certainly was mentioned there, but always in the context of hope.

  18. Pingback: Night of the Day of the Dead « Spirit Lights The Way

  19. Great post. What an interesting background to Halloween Debra.
    Love the photo of the girls. They’re so cute if they were my grand daughters I know I’d be hugging them all the time 🙂

    The Octavio Paz quote is so thought provoking.
    “…death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips… A Mexican caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, i”
    Why are we scared to talk about death?

  20. Same here… I don’t like ghouls and so happy to welcome November. ;-_
    Thank you for checking in during the Hurricane… your kind wishes were appreciated!

  21. Fascinating as ever Debra, thank you so much for adding to my cultural understanding of both Aalifornia and Mexico. While I’ve heard of the day of the dead I hadn’t really seen much of it, so the viedo was appreciated. The “after life party” photo made me giggle !
    I’m with you on horror and violence, just holds no pleasure for me, and what you say about the skeletons mocking is a totally different take.
    Oh and I’d want a tambourine too 🙂

  22. Glad I’m not the only one not so into Halloween. I get completely freaked out by costumes – not so much the kids, but the adults. I enjoyed learning more about dia de los muertos though. The girls look adorable. I hope they had a great time! 🙂 I love how Karina built her costume around one desired thing. Precious.

  23. Dia de los Muertos doesn’t seem to have found a foothold in the UK yet Debra. However, we have a much smaller celebration amongst some of my old workmates. The Lords Drinking Team, aside from gathering on the first friday in December each year to remember old times and share a few beers, hold the first working day after Christmas (December 27th this year) as a day of remembering colleagues departed or perhaps no longer contactable. It is referred to as ‘Wilbur’s Day’ in honour of George Wright who used to take charge that day in the managers absense and usually treated the staff working in the Christmas – New year period to a beer (the manager used to buy the lads a beer on the last working day before christmas). Wilbur long since transferred to the great exchange in the sky and a number of others have followed but the tradition is maintained, often over the phone or by MSCommunicator nowadays when we work so far apart – somehow people will find a way to share a few moments on Wilbur’s day to remember old colleagues.

  24. Hallo, Three Well Beings.
    I liked this blog. Our Halloween is rather lower-key, but kids love it, dressing up as ghouls and ghosties.
    Thank you for visiting/following my blog. I’m afraid it hasn’t been added to recently, but when the muse strikes again, I will publish more.
    Dig deep, there are a lot of different kinds of poetry there, and I hope you enjoy what you read.
    John (

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