Los Dias de Los Muertos (1-2 Nov) is a time for remembering friends, family and ancestors. At first glance, Day of the Dead decorations, colored paper garlands, little skeletons performing daily tasks and sugar skulls inscribed with names remind visitors of Halloween.
This holiday is a perfect example of the complex heritage of the Mexican people. The beliefs of today's Mexican are based on the complicated blended cultures of his ancestors, the Aztec and Maya and Spanish invaders, layered with Catholicism.
The Aztec, Mayan and other indigenous traditions have enriched the Mexican's attitude about death. They believe that souls continue to exist after death, resting placidly in Mictlan, the land of the dead, not for judgment or resurrection; but for the day each year when they could return home to visit their loved ones.
People die three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning. The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight.
The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.
Many families honor their ancestors and dead with home altars, laden with harvest fruits, traditional bread with crossed bones on dough on top, all to greet the spirits as they return to the home for 24 hours each year.
The act of preparing an altar by placing photographs, flowers, candles, favorite foods and drink of the loved one provides a special time to remember, and to transform grief into acceptance. The living invite the spirits of the family to return home for a few hours of laughter, tears and memories.
Some families prepare the altar of offerings at the family grave site, lighting a candle for each dead one, remembering the names, and placing flowers or coronas (wreaths) at the cemetery. Many stay to visit, eat, drink and pray while they keep a vigil during the night. All night, throughout the cemetery there is a grand family reunion of huge extended families, alive and dead, as one by one, through stories, memories and dreams, the dead return. On this night, those who wait realize the importance of living to be well remembered, working to be well respected and loving to be well missed.
The hand crafted skeletons, Calaveras are funny and friendly rather than frightening or spooky. They represent the beloved dead ones, their occupations and hobbies. As they are placed on the altar, the delightful skeleton figures bring back fond memories and cause the grieving ones to smile. The figures with the smells of favorite foods, help the spirits find the right house.
While most altars are laden with the favorite foods, sweets, drinks, and harvest fruits of each family spirit, even the most basic altar includes these basic needs:
• WATER to quench the thirst and for purification
• SALT to season the food and for purification
• BREAD to represent the food needed for survival