Written by: Em Caza de Olivia
Dia de los Muertos, “Day of the Dead,” is a Mexican festival that goes back to the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica. It is celebrated every year on November 1st and 2nd across Mexico, though other days, such as October 31st through November 6th, may be included depending on the locality. This festival honors our dead ancestors, on these days their souls return to earth to celebrate with us. On November 1st, the children who have passed come back to celebrate as “angelitos” (little angels) and on the following day, it is the “difuntos” (adults) turn to visit for the festivities. It is important to note that Dia de los Muertos is in no way related to Halloween.
Mexico is a large and diverse country, traditions are as varied as the country itself, but there are unique customs and symbols that have become central to the holiday and are rich with Mexican cultural influence, color, and substance. My roots are indigenous to the regions of Michoacán and Guanajuato, Mexico. Therefore, I will share the cultural customs passed to me by my family, as they relate to what is commonly seen.
Just as the Aztecs would offer water and food to their deceased loved ones to help them on their journey to Mictlan (Mik-lan), the land of the dead, Mexicans set up and decorate altars, which we call “ofrendas,” in honor of loved ones who have passed. These ofrendas help guide souls on their journey back to the land of the living. The altar is an offering which will point north as a welcome and commonly consists of three levels.
On the top-level sit two skeletons or images which represent Mictēcacihuātl (mik-tek-a-chi-wa-tel), “lady of the dead” and her husband Mictlāntēcutli (mik-lan-te-qut-li). Mictēcacihuātl rules over the land of Mictlan, the lowest level of the afterworld where the dead reside. Along with them, we place other religious or spiritual representations, as it is our connection to the divine. On this level we are essentially asking for divine permission and protection.
The middle level consists of water (both to drink and wash up with), a mirror, salt, sweet breads, and other foods, fruits, vegetables, drinks, and candies; all things fiesta from this world that we will share, to celebrate with our friends and family, both living and dead.
The bottom level will have pictures and/or objects that connect us with the souls of our loved ones. It is our belief that photos hold the essence of the soul, a memory of a moment. And objects hold their energy. We use these to help call them back to the earth and to communicate with them. This level is called “la entrada,” the entrance.
Another thing common in ofrendas is that the objects used to decorate represent the four elements. For example: the foods and salt placed represent earth, element of water represented by the jug of water, tissue paper and copal incense to represent air, and candles to represent fire. The ofrenda is decorated with bright flowers, cempasúchil (sem-pa-su-chil), the Aztec marigold, the intense color and pungent smell of this native flower will also call the souls back.
This tradition is multi-layered, there are many more symbols, objects, and items to include in this description. But the last one I want to explain are the “calaveras y calacas.” Skeleton and skull images have a history dating back to Mesoamerican traditions. There is nothing grim about these skulls as they are often decorated with bright colors and happy expressions. It is common to write the name of a deceased loved one on the figurine’s forehead and place it atop the ofrenda. The term “sugar skull” comes from the fact that these skulls are often molded and decorated out of sugar, they are charged with the prayers of the family and are consumed at the conclusion of the festival as a way to close and say goodbye to our relatives.
We hope you will take the time to come see our altar located in the lobby of the BSB. We encourage you to fill it with your personal prayers and offerings. Feel free to leave pictures or items at the altar but please do not take or move any items. The ofrenda is as personal as those who are being honored on it. There is no wrong way to do it, understanding the symbolism and intention are what is important.