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Mexico Guru

Honoring Dead Relatives ... It’s Fun!

To many Westerners, a holiday honoring dead relatives sounds sad, even lugubrious, and the idea of creating an altar exotic and witchy. But in Mexico, the spirited and spiritually imbued Day of the Dead holiday is a pleasant time of fond remembrances.

The Christian holiday was actually superimposed on the pagan holiday Samhain, marking the end of summer and the “death” of the year. The tradition was brought to Mexico with the conquistadors. Like other imported traditions, it absorbed local culture and products, morphing into something unique.

November 2 is All Souls’ Day in Mexico. On this day adults who have passed on are remembered at home altars and in graveyard vigils. Pagan and Christian calendars alike mark November 1 as All Saints’ Day. Mexicans dedicate November 1st to children who have died, calling it “El Día de los Angelitos,” or “Day of the Little Angels.” “Hallow’een,” October 31, ushers in this holiday period just as Christmas Eve ushers in Christmas the following day.

In preparation for October 31, families clean graves and tombs, painting headstones and pulling weeds. Flower ladies set up stalls outside the cemetery with enormous buckets of flowers for sale. The most traditional, the marigold, or cempasuchil, is used throughout Mexico.

The composition of altars varies by region, but they do have some commonalities. Symbols and iconography stem from a blend of indigenous, pagan, and Christian traditions.

The information below has been adapted from Day of the Dead in Mexico, by Mary J. Andrade, with the author’s permission. For more information about this holiday, visit her website, http://www.dayofthedeadblog.com.

What’s on the Altar, and Why?

  • The picture of the deceased serves to help the soul’s departure from purgatory, if it resides there, or simply to honor the deceased.
  • Candles represent the element of fire, one of the four elements that should be present on an altar.
  • A glass of water is used for the soul to wet its lips, dry from the long journey from beyond the grave. Water is one of the four elements.
  • Fruits and nuts represent the earth element.
  • Paper flags (papel picado) represent the element of wind and help guide the soul to the altar.
  • Sugar skulls represent death, an inescapable part of life.
  • Liquor represents joyful events of the person’s life and encourages the soul to visit its family again.
  • Copal incense cleanses the surroundings of evil spirits, enabling the soul to enter the home or place without danger.
  • Different foods are placed on the altar so that the departed may delight in their aroma.
  • Flowers provide decoration and perfume so that when it is time for the souls to leave they will do so, content with having shared this moment with their relatives.