An indigenous Mexican celebration, Día de los Muertos, November 2, should not be confused with Halloween, October 31, All Saint’s Day, November 1, or All Soul’s Day, November 2. Instilled into the native population of Mexico by Spanish missionaries, the holiday does share a date and the same religious overtones as All Soul’s Day, but its roots are firmly planted in native folklore and tradition. As the native populations attempted to assimilate the teachings of the Catholic priests with their own religious rite, a clash of spiritual energies was inevitable. Thus, the Day of the Dead was started by Mexican native tribes as a means of continuing their belief in the circle of life in which death plays a part and is not to be feared. As it evolved, the native holiday incorporated aspects of the Catholic teaching of death as an end to mortal life and a beginning of a new and better afterlife.

In Mexico, this holiday is celebrated at night and in cemeteries. The family of the departed makes offerings of food and drink and places the traditional flowers, marigolds, at each grave site. During this offering, the family members also offer prayers or speak to the dead. In the United States, many Mexican American families make a pilgrimage to family gravesites with offerings of flowers, but during the day, not at midnight. Ofrendas , or altars, are built inside many homes. They contain significant objects that the departed relative might have cherished as reminders of the deceased. Candles are lit and prayers are offered at the ofrendas as well.


animated candleCALAVERAS EVERYWHEREanimated candle

The most important character on Día de los Muertos is the key symbol of death, the calavera. This words means skull or skeleton. These skeleton images are not ghastly, but symbolic of life. In fact, they help the living embrace the circle of life. Mexican curios that feature skeletons employed in some kind of diversion done normally by the living—like playing in a band or washing dishes—express a whimsical rather than sinister view of death. The calavera shows up everywhere, even in the traditional food of the day, pan de muerto, a sweet bread molded into the shape of a skull and baked with a plastic skeleton inside. Similarly, the traditional sugar skull confections bear the same image, as does papel picado (paper streamers made up of rectangular sections that have been cut out, similar to paper snowflakes, to depict the skeleton in different scenes).

A stunning example of papel picado

The Day of the Dead is one of the more mystical Hispanic celebrations, and it can be the most fulfulling. It represents clash of pagan and Christian beliefs, but its message of death as a continuance, not an end, can be uplifting. The true, irresistible nature of this tradition is appealing to more and more non-Latinos, especially in the Southwest.


animated candleTHE LAUGHING SKELETONanimated candle

For newcomers to the celebration of the Day of the Dead, the biggest cultural stumbling block will be the day’s key symbol, the calavera. But an understanding of the importance of the calavera enhances the experience of the Day of the Dead because skeleton icons take on considerable significance in this day, not as the markers of death, but as a symbol of the circle of life. Clay art, sugar skull confections, pan de muerto, and papel picado all bear the image of the skeleton.

In this country, the skeleton carries an eerie reputation , usually associated with Halloween images of ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. It represents death universally, whether depicted as the Grim Reaper , uncovered at an archeological site, or examined at a crime scene. Skeletons are literally the last remains of our physical bodies and our last link to life on Earth. In fact, they’re a discomforting reminder of how fragile the human body is and how fleeting is life. Perhaps this is why the skeleton elicits a negative reaction in most Americans.

To understand the Day of the Dead, the skeleton must be approached with a sense of humor. In Mexico, especially the state of Oaxaca, which is famous for its extravagant Day of the Dead celebration, the calavera is still very much attached to the soul of the person who walked in it while alive and whose memory lives in the minds of relatives and friends.

Most importantly, the calavera is used as a tool. Although the Aztecs approached dying differently, as part of life ad not the end to life, they still respected death and possibly gained some fear of it once the Spaniards began to instill their Christian beliefs. Mexicans use the calavera to help them face the fear by dressing it in traditional costumes and depicting it in paintings, dancing, laughing, or engaging in any of the activities the individual would have performed in life. Rarely is the calavera depicted in a menacing manner; instead it is seen in humdrum and even humorous settings.

The most common curious sold in Mexico depicting these scenes are called calacas. They come in all sizes and can be made of plaster, clay or papier-mache, and can depict the calavera in a variety of life-like activities—dressed as musicians, beauticians, or dentists, for example.

Miniatures made of clay and wire and called escenas are also quite popular. Similarly, they usually depict a scene or activity in life. In an escena, a miniture diorama, musicians play instruments, bakers bake, secretaries type, and husbands cheat on their wives. Compound this folk art activity with the pan de muerto, the sugar calavera candy, papel picado, paintings, earrings, and puppets made in the calavera image, and clearly, skeletons are inescapable on the Day of the Dead and must be accepted as part of the celebration.


animated candleBUILD YOUR OWN OFRENDA — the art of the Day of the Deadanimated candle

Planning a family trip to the cemetery may not be for everyone, but there is an option that can ease a newcomer into the Day of the Dead celebration. Folk art and fine art rules this day, so many art organizations have incorporated the date into their exhibit calendars, Some organizations focus on printed artwork, which may include artists like José Guadalupe Posada . Others focus on what may be the earliest form of installation art, the ofrenda.

To build an altar in the home, decide first if you want the altar to honor one person or a group of family members. Once you choose, the altar will need a focal point, usually a photograph, but it can also be an object that represents the deceased person. It can be a trophy, a favorite book, a tool from his profession, or a work of art. The central piece is the most important because the ofrenda will be built around it.

Next, choose a location. You may prefer to build it outside, but find location that won’t be disturbed by children or inclement weather. It could be on a mantel, bookshelf, or a plant stand. Start building in October. You can start with just a photo, but try to add to it every day other objects that remind of you of the deceased. Add a book, a cd, jewelry, a guitar pick, an amulet,--anything that relates to that person’s personality—until you arrange a nice collection of things around you centerpiece. Family members can even include personal notes to the loved one. Leave room for the candles, which should not be lit until November 1st and which should stay lit until midnight of November 2nd. Choose safe candles and avoid placing them too close to the objects in the ofrenda.

Marigolds are the traditional flower to add to the ofrenda, but you can choose a flower that is more closely associated with the deceased, if you wish. Flowers and food items can be added at the last minute. Choose a time of day to gather everyone around the ofrenda to think about and honor the deceased. Keep the ofrenda up after the Day of the Dead is over. Each year, add new components, maybe even some calacas or escenas.