I truly love the Day of the Dead holiday. I can’t remember the first time I encountered Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. In the city where I grew up, there was a large enough hispanic population that the festivities were simply part of the holiday landscape of my youth. By the time I hit highschool, I had experienced the pain of losing loved ones. I loved the idea of the holiday–this celebration of the life of loved ones who had since departed. The holiday focuses on honoring them through the things they enjoyed in life–music, food, dance, and festivities–appealed to me. Instead of picturing them alone in graveyards, visited only on occasion with somber meins and hushed voices, our visits could be filled with laughter. I thought that they would be happier in the afterlife knowing that we remembered them with joy.
My appreciation for the Day of the Dead celebrations grew due to experiencing them in Mexico.
Having lived in Mexico while studying on multiple occasions, I got to experience the celebrations up close. I found that while the Day of the Dead is a specific time set aside in the year to celebrate the lives of deceased loved ones, this idea that their lives are to be celebrated is not limited to the Day of the Dead. On my return to Mexico in 2000, I learned that my host father had passed away . This was devastating as I had grown close to during my earlier stay in 1998. The loss hit me hard, in part because it was so unexpected.
Because my host family was not online, and mail between the countries was unreliable, I had not heard of his passing before I returned. I remember they had a small table up in one of the front rooms with a photo of him and candles. This table is called an ofrenda which means offering; in English, these tables are usually called altars. At any point I wanted, I could light the candle and talk to him, remembering previous conversations. It was comforting.
The Day of the Dead also appeals to me as an anthropologist.
The holiday grew out of an ancient and complex history. Originally, it was celebrated by the Aztecs, Toltecs, other Nahua peoples and spread to other indigenous people living in central and southern Mexico and Central America. When the Spaniards arrived, they imposed Catholicism on the indigenous populations. Among the traditions they brought with them, was All Souls Day. In medieval Spain, Spaniards celebrated this day by decorating cemeteries with flowers, lighting candles, and bringing wine and pan de ánimas (pan de muerto in Mexico), or spirit bread.
Over time, these traditions blended into something new and uniquely Mexican. Over the centuries, the holiday has continued to change to meet the needs of the people. It has become a symbol of indigenous identity specifically and Mexican identity in general. To me, this speaks of the resilience of culture. The indigenous people of Mexico and Central America are still here and still relevant to the world today. Their history, like their dead, are to be celebrated with joy and remembrance.
The Day of the Dead has come to mean more to me personally.
I am older now, and as I have lost more people who I love, so it resonates more. It celebrates the continuity of life while honoring the past and those who have gone before us. It recognizes the cycle of life and death, including our own mortality. Death is not something to be feared, but simply the next stage in the life cycle. While I do not usually go and have a picnic in the graveyard. Most of my deceased loved ones are buried too far away–but I celebrate in my own personal way. I have pictures and often light candles, play music, and share ridiculous jokes and stories that I think they would have enjoyed. And though missed, desperately, and gone, they are not forgotten.
at The Researcher’s Gateway