November 1st commemorates a beloved holiday in much of Mexico– Día de Los Muertos—Day of the Dead. Not macabre or morbid, in truth, Day of the Dead is a fiesta…a celebration of life! In Mexico, primarily in regions densely populated with indigenous populations like Oaxaca and Michoacán, families hold all-night vigils and feasts in graveyards paying homage to their deceased loved ones. Earlier in the day, they clean the graves, and lavishly adorn them like altars with bouquets of marigolds, wreaths of flowers, candles, photographs of their dearly departed and a few of their favorite things–a deck of cards, a shot of tequila, a child’s toy.
I first traveled to Pátzcuaro, Michoacán to partake in this celebration over 25 years ago. Here is a photo I took of an old woman at her husband’s grave. The next year I returned to give her the photo; instead, I found her family holding vigil for her!
As darkness descends, families gather at the graves. Smoky bonfires and beeswax candles illuminate the night . They graciously shared food brought picnic-style and we passed around a bottle of mezcal. Throughout the graveyard, roving troupes of mariachis sang favorite songs of the deceased, children gaily laughed and played, and families reminisced about their loved ones.
Of utmost importance is food…the feast of life…from which comes most beloved memories!
On my own home altar, I commemorated my beloved father with some of his favorite things….
Serving Pan de Muertos is a revered tradition for Day of the Dead. This slightly sweet yeasty bread comes in shapes of crossbones, calaveras (skulls), or a body ready for the casket! It tastes especially delicious when dunked into mugs of Mexican cinnamon-scented hot chocolate, or Champurrado, a thickened corn gruel flavored with chocolate and spices (also see Champurrado to Die for to read my article about Day of the Dead!) You’ll find Pan de Muertos and Mexican chocolate at Mexican bakeries and Latino markets at this time throughout out the U.S. too.
The holy communion of breaking bread with the dead is a way to immortalize them forever!
I often add contemporary flair to my Day of the Dead fiestas!
Altars, known as ofrendas, are also created during this time of the year in homes in Mexico as well as in graveyards, laden with items to entice the deceased back home to partake of the pleasures of life once again. How do the muertos find their way back home? Bouquets of zempazuchitl (golden marigolds) attract the dead with their pungent aroma and brilliant color. Along with candles and copal incense, they lead the way back home. Colorful tissue-paper banners known as papel picado intricately cut with skeletons and skulls stretch across doorways. Whimsical paper-mache and shiny tin cadavers with articulated limbs, and decorations with motifs of the dead are found everywhere.
Sugar skulls gaily painted with colorful frosting line shelves for sale along with sugar sculpture vignettes that portray miniature skeletons in their daily tasks–a dentist pulling teeth, a secretary typing, or a woman stirring the pot. Pull a string on a matchbox sized coffin, and a corpse will pop up!
San Antonio artist Yolanda Luna explained the true symbolism and holiness of an altar. “It dates back to when Aztecs were buried with their favorite possessions so that they would have food and personal belongings,” she said. “After death, people journey on a long road to heaven and need nurturance on their voyage.” Traditionalists also leave on the altar items important for the deceased for their return to heaven after their Day of the Dead pilgrimage: a comb, salt, water, and root veggies.
For decades, I have hosted Day of the Dead fiestas at my home, inviting friends to join me in making an altar to commemorate our deceased loved ones. They bring photos and remembrances, food and candles, marigolds and mezcal. Just as Day of the Dead historically melded pre-Hispanic and European traditions, assimilating Aztec’s beliefs with the Catholic All Soul’s and All Saint’s Day celebrated at this same time of year, it has crossed the border to embrace both Anglo and Latinos as a way of honoring their deceased and welcoming them into the living’s hearts once again.
Learn more about Mexico’s beloved Day of the Dead celebration in this article I wrote for Edible Austin. You’ll find hints and recipes for creating a fiesta and commemorative altar in your own home.
My altars are often celebrated in magazines, newspapers and on television shows like Home & Garden Television’s ” Home Strange Home ” or Central Texas Gardener on PBS. My home is filled with my collections of Day of the Dead decorations and folk art brought back from my many sojourns to Mexico. With the popularity of Día de los Muertos in the U.S., you’ll find Latino markets, import stores, and online sources filled with memorabilia for this holiday.
However, your altar need not be Mexican in theme. Simply set aside a small table in your home and adorn it with a photo of your beloved, some of their favorite things and foods, a small bouquet….and light a candle in their name…..
¡Feliz Día de los Muertos!
With blessings to you and those you love!