Disclosure: This post about Dia de Los Muertos is part of a sponsored campaign with General Mills. However, all opinions expressed are my own.
When someone we love dies, it can be crippling. The hardest part of living after losing someone is surviving without them. It doesn’t matter if it’s an elderly grandparent or a new baby that you never got to meet; it hurts in a primal way that makes you want to crawl inside of yourself and die. Having experienced this pain, I can truly say that I look forward to celebrating Dia de Los Muertos with my family.
I know it sounds macabre, especially if you don’t know what it’s all about. Firstly, it’s not Halloween. That’s the holiday where little kids dress up like monsters and get free candy from their neighbors. Actually, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays but it is nothing like Dia de Los Muertos.
As a Latina, fall season means Dia de Los Muertos is right around the corner. Last year, we watched the movie Book of Life, with our girls, to start the dialogue. It’s a big part of our Mexican heritage. They’d seen sugar skulls but didn’t fully understand what the celebration of Dia los Muertos was about.
November 1st is Dia de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. In preparation of the holiday, the graves are cleaned and those of the children are decorated with white orchids and baby’s breath. November 2nd is Dia de los Muertos, honoring adults, their graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds. On Dia de los Muertos we honor our dead with festivals and celebrations; it’s a marriage of indigenous Aztec ritual and Catholicism. I love this part.
The cemeteries in Mexico that are normally grey and melancholy, like any other cemetery, suddenly are bursting with color and life. You can’t believe the vibrant colors of beautiful sugar skulls and marigolds that fill the cemetery. My father celebrates this every year by going to Mexico and decorating the tombs of my Tio Narciso, my Abuela Bertha and my Abuelito Manuel. I know this is hard for him but it is also cathartic to celebrate their lives, rather than just be sad they are gone.
We believe that our dead loved ones would be insulted by mourning or sadness, so on Dia de los Muertos we celebrate the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties and activities that the dead enjoyed while they were alive. For my Abuelito that would mean leche con pan (he was a simple man with simple tastes), for my Tio Narci that would definitely mean a Big Mac (he loved the United States, especially Big Macs and Ronald Regan) and for my Abuela it would mean as many beautiful marigolds as you could fit at her burial site.
I like that Dia de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with loved ones. It’s a very healthy way to look at death and takes away some of the fear of the unknown.
The most familiar symbol of Dia de los Muertos are the calacas and Calaveras (skeletons and skulls), which appear everywhere during the holiday: in candied sweets, on Pan de Muerto, on parade masks and even as dolls. Calacas and calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, often in fancy clothes and entertaining situations because it’s a celebration of life.
In addition to celebrations, the dead are honored on Dia de los Muertos with ofrendas—small, personal altars honoring one person. Ofrendas often have flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered. For example, if I were to make an altar for my Abuelito Manuel it would include lots of sweets and breads like Pan de Muerto.
Pan de Muerto (Spanish for “bread of the dead”) is a big part of the Dia de los Muertos traditional celebration. Pan de Muerto is sweetened soft bread shaped like a bun and decorated with bone-shaped pieces. The living eat the bread along with our departed loved one’s other favorite foods in their honor. No Dia de los Muertos celebration would be complete without Pan de Muerto.