Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, November 6, 2013.
Since my son and I are learning Spanish together, I decided to celebrate the Day of the Dead or “Dia de los Muertos,” which is celebrated over two days, November 1st and 2nd. The purpose of Dia de los Muertos is to remember and honor friends and relatives who have passed away. It’s not supposed to be scary or morbid. Instead, it’s a celebration of their lives and a way to remember that death is a part of life for everyone.
The roots of this ancient holiday can be traced back thousands of years to the indigenous people of Mesoamerica. After the Spanish conquest, the festival blended with Spanish customs, and eventually became Dia de los Muertos. It’s celebrated throughout Mexico, and Mexican Americans and other people around the world celebrate it too. The holiday continues to evolve as each culture puts its special spin on it.
I like the holiday because it is another way for me to teach my boys about their ancestors and the people who were once an important part of my life. Sharing family history and stories is important for children because it teaches them where they come from and gives them a sense of belonging.
Honoring the dead is a tradition from my husband’s family, and each Memorial Day we visit the cemeteries where some of my ancestors are buried. Those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos may visit cemeteries now and clean the gravesites and decorate them with flowers and other memorabilia, but since we visit cemeteries on Memorial Day, I decided we would celebrate Dia de los Muertos in a more simple fashion at home.
I chose to make a “shoebox altar” to honor my grandmothers and our more recent animal friends who died in the past few years. My boys can remember Millie, our dog who died over a year ago, so I thought the celebration might have more meaning for them by including a friend they remember.
Altars are decorated in bright colors. Flowers, particularly marigolds, toys, photographs, bread and other foods are all traditional items that may be placed on an altar. The idea is to invite the spirits of the deceased to come back and celebrate the day with you.
I remember that both my grandmothers had plenty of sweets on hand whenever I visited them, so I put some candy under their photos. They also loved flowers and gardening, so my boys and I made some flowers out of tissue paper to add to the altar. For the dogs, my son put out a little dog food, and since Millie loved to steal our socks, we put a sock out for her as well.
The most common symbol of Dia de los Muertos is the calacas or skeleton. Again, it’s not supposed to be scary. Calacas may be dressed in colorful clothes or painted with flowers and religious symbols. I made a skull out of paper mache, and I decorated it with flowers and my favorite colors. My boys laughed at it, which was the reaction I was hoping for.
Every evening I make up a story for my seven-year-old, but on these two nights, I retold him the stories I remember my grandmothers telling me about their childhoods. I don’t know if their spirits actually visited our house those days, but by making the altar, looking at photos, and reminiscing, I felt the spirit of their lives and how they helped shape me as a person. It felt good to honor and remember them.