El Dia de los Muertos is the first major holiday that we’ve been here to participate in, and probably one of the best examples of color and culture in Mexico.
Having resided here a full seven weeks, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to expound upon its deep meaning to the Mexican people. I’ve begun to take in some of the nuances of the symbolism and the most popular events, but I know it could take years for me to have a true understanding!
The colors and scents of the holiday are especially stimulating. Marigolds abound. They are the most important flower for the Day of the Dead, and their scent is believed to help the dead find their way back home.
Every altar — from small counter top displays in schools and businesses, to more elaborate in-home altars, to the grand ones displayed in public places — is adorned in this brilliant orange color.
The marigolds may help the dead find their way home, but the other items at the altar reassure them they have arrived in the right place, and welcome them back.
The altars are personalized with photos, items representing their favorite activities in life and their favorite foods. There are a vast range of traditional elements that would be found in these ofrendas as well, such as water, salt, intense, pumpkin seeds, monarch butterflies, candles and dog figurines. The variety is huge and each altar is very personal.
The school where I take spanish lessons created an ofrenda on their countertop to honor one of their teachers who had died in a car accident a few years ago, and another one for the son of one of their teachers. Their photos revealed that they were both young men – smiling, handsome and so likable.
It was a little sad for me to see this, and I think those feelings may be the best illustration about how the Mexicans and Americans view death differently. I believe Mexicans are more accepting of death as a natural part of life than we are, which allows them to make fun of it.
I’m sure this holiday has evolved over the years, and will continue to do so. Halloween is beginning to creep into the culture, for one thing. I didn’t see as much commercialism around el Dia de Muertos as I expected, though. After living in the US, where we begin to see Christmas decorations in August, I was surprised to find that the only conspicuous sign of the Dia de Muertos in the stores was the traditional Pan de Muerto. This began to appear by mid September, but the flowers, alters, papel piqcado and candy skulls didn’t seem to show up until much later… some only days before the event (imagine!)
San Miguel is known for their celebrations… whether they be nationally recognized holidays, or something of their own making. They certainly were not to be outdone when it comes to activities associated with el Dia de Muertos. And I suspect that many of them cater to the large population of gringo and tourists. I was particularly interested to learn about was La Catrina — which I’ll save for another post…
If you want to dig a little deeper, there is lots of information is available on this important holiday. I’ve listed a few of them below. Happy reading!
Experience San Miguel – Day of the Dead
Inside Mexico – Day of the Dead
Decoding the Day of the Dead Alter