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.”