Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated with all the preparation and excitement of Christmas in my house. While not strictly related to Halloween, in the U.S. the two holidays have become associated by virtue of their proximity to each other, but they are not the same celebration. Dia de los muertos takes place on November 2, the Catholic feast of All Souls Day (which is itself an attempt by the Church to syncretize the pre-Christian practice of communing with the dead at this time of year.)
Dia de los muertos is a time to reflect on the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. The traditional practices are also predicated on the belief that for as long as we remember and honor our dead loved ones, they are still with us. To demonstrate our affection for those who have departed, we build altars and decorate them with photos, personal belongings, favorite foodstuffs and trinkets. We sprinkle marigold petals (the flower of the dead) and light candles to guide the spirits of our relatives home. We set out specially baked pan de muerto and brew hot mexican chocolate with cinnamon so that the aromas will entice the spirits to come and visit us. We decorate our homes with whimsical sugar skulls, calacas and calaveras to make light of death. Sometimes, we dress ourselves up in calavera makeup.
Greg and Alice in calavera makeup: "Hasta la muerte, 2009."
The photos below are from my family's Dia de los muertos altar for this year. I decided to build an altar for my parents, Manuel and Candelaria Armendariz and decorate it with some of their favorite things.
The altar for my mom and dad.
My parents and I used to play Loteria when I was little, so I covered the fireplace with Loteria cards. As I was setting this up, I remembered my father calling out the Loteria cards with funny sayings and rhymes. One of his sayings was "El caso (cazo) que te hago es poco," which was a pun meaning "I'm not paying attention to you."
El Cazo (tub) rhymes with el caso (attention). My friend Gabi wrote me and told me that Loteria cards used to scare her and I realized that some of the images might be scary for a little kid: la muerte (death, pictured as a skeleton), el diablito (devil), el valiente (a man brandishing a machete), la arana (spider), el corazon (a pierced heart), el borracho (drunk) staggering out of a bar...fodder for nightmares, but in my world, Loteria cards meant the family playing together, placing little beans on the game cards and calling out "Loteria!" By the time I was five, my father taught me to play poker, but I digress.
One of my dad's beloved ranchera records by Miguel Aceves Mejia is near the bottom and his old wooden cane (that was later used by my mother) is there, waiting for his return. My papi's old carpenter's mathematics manual is open in the foreground. You can't see them, but there are dried marigold petals sprinkled all over the altar. He loved the sweet Jarritos brand soda pop and would buy it by the case, probably not the best thing since he was a diabetic.
Altar para my padre.
In addition to his favorite soda, I set out his favorite Argus camera, a bottle of Tres Flores brillantina, muertitos playing billiards (like he used to) and Pan de Muerto. I scanned an old photo of him from Mexico and put that in a frame.
Altar para mi madre.
For my mami, I also scanned an old photo of her in Mexico and framed it. I set out a mug of Abuelita Mexican hot chocolate, Jumex canned juices, mazapan (candy), a miniature dining table displaying delicious foods, Pomada de la Campana for aches and pains, her dangling silver earring collection and one of the scandalous periodicals she loved to read. I would have put out a Whopper Jr. from Burger King but I am vegetarian.
This tradition really does raise the dead because the whole time you are planning and building your altar, you are concentrating on your loved ones, breathing life into memories while thinking of them. Last night, as I whisked the foaming hot chocolate into mugs, I watched from a distance as my husband explained the significance of the articles on the altar. My daughter watched him in wrapt attention and it made me feel like our whole family was somehow together because my daughter, who had never met my father and had only briefly known my mother, was getting to know them for the first time. My husband put the final touch on our offerings by putting in a DVD of "A Toda Maquina," a classic Mexican film with Pedro Infante and Luis Aguilar and a favorite of my mom and dad.
"I'm pretty sure they won't be able to resist this," he said. We curled up on the sofa to watch the movie with our hot chocolate, pan dulce and our daughter by our side, happy to be sharing this moment with each other and with the spirits of my mother and father.