Every year when we open up our box of Halloween pumpkins, ghosts, spiders and bats, we also take out the Día de los Muertos skulls and skeletons we pack in the same box. The day before trick-or-treating, we set up our ofrenda: a memorial or altar that pays tribute to family members and friends who have died. The ofrenda is a collection of treasures, pictures, food, special items and candles to remind the families of their loved ones.
Learning about celebrations around the world not only heightens cultural understanding, it helps children learn our similarities and differences, what other cultures value, and for our own kids, it instills pride in their own heritage. Understanding the reasons behind different celebrations helps to promote cultural awareness and eliminates negative attitudes or prejudices. In Day of the Dead, we see the values of family, our ancestors, of certain traditions and rituals, and of the belief in life after death.
Día de los Muertos, or Todos Santos is a holiday that stems from the Catholic All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day, combined with Aztec rituals celebrating the lives of our ancestors. In fact, it is celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other Latin American countries. Because my husband is from Mexico City, we try to keep Mexican traditions alive and teach our kids about this special celebration.
After gathering the materials for our altar we set out some favorites foods and some water, because traditionally people have believed that the spirits are hungry and thirsty from their journey. The kids gathered the skeletons (calacas) and skulls (calaveras), and hung up their skull art project since we didn’t have any papel picado available. Traditional ofrendas also typically have cempasuchitl (marigolds), candles and incense to lead the spirits to the altar for their visit.
But everyone’s favorite part is when we gather items to represent our grandparents’ favorite activities, hobbies and even vices. My maternal grandfather was a gardener, who loved to fish, and could build and fix anything. We represented his interests with a plant, a hammer, and a fishing lure, near his photograph. For Toño’s grandfather, we had a flask of tequila, an old level and a bunch of bananas. As I explained each object to my kids, the stories began to flow. His maternal grandfather surveyed land all over Mexico and was sometimes paid in unique commodities. One time he brought home a whole banana stem from the Yucatan peninsula. After carrying it home all the way back to Mexico City, he laid it on the floor, a huge, hairy tarantula crawled out, and everyone screamed!
For our family, and families across Latin America, Día de los Muertos is not only about keeping a tradition alive and instilling pride- though these certainly play a part. This special holiday is a chance for our children to learn about relatives that they might not remember or maybe haven’t ever met. As families sit together and share special stories about our loved ones, we get to strengthen our memories and show our children what beautiful families they are a part of.