There is a lot of discussion about how Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is Mexico's version of Halloween; while anyone who has experienced a Día de Muertos celebration will immediately protest, the roots of both stem from the belief that the veil of energy separating one realm from another is at its lowest between October 31st and November 2nd. In these three magical days, the dead can return to the land of the living.
For some, this might seem a frightening prospect — spirits returning from the dead to haunt the living? — but in truth, this is a beautiful, magical time; not one to be feared, but one to be celebrated. In the U.S., we fear death, and thereby fear the dead, so our Halloween decorations reflect this: homes decked out with ghouls and ghosts, monsters and witches, spooky laughter and cobwebs. We mock the dead in an attempt to overcome our fear of death and what lies beyond.
In Mexico, however, Indigenous and early Catholic rituals have merged to create a tradition of celebration around death and the dead. The dead are welcomed home, and homes and graveyards are transformed into community works of art with elaborate altars of flowers and incense, offerings of food and drink. Doors are thrown open, and even the poorest households offer sumptuous spreads of homemade food to friends, family, neighbors and strangers.
Twenty-three years ago, I had the privilege of attending a Día de Muertos celebration in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Through a college program, I was living with a family who had settled a rural area right outside of city limits, and together with other families, had built basic homes of concrete, with electricity cleverly siphoned off city lines. Like so many subsistence farmers, they'd been forced from their homes in rural Mexico when NAFTA came fully into effect, as in local markets, U.S.-imported corn was cheaper than that which was locally grown. They came in droves to the cities, trying to find work in factories; where there was no affordable housing, they banded together and created their own. The city turned a blind eye to these communities, choosing to overlook their siphoning of city resources, and they were able to prosper in meaningful ways.
Doña Leo, the wonderful woman who was hosting me, was the heart and soul of the community that she helped build. A devout Catholic, she hosted many spiritual groups at her small cement house, teaching that Jesus was an activist and revolutionary who rose above his station to lead others to better lives. When her father died in the last days of October, the entire community was invited both to his Novena (the 9-day ancient ritual of grieving practiced by many devout Catholics) as well as their family's celebration of Día de Muertos.
Having grown up in Puritan-founded New England, I was accustomed to a certain austerity in religious practices, especially those surrounding death. I was therefore delighted and amazed by what ensued: days of feasting, doors open wide to all community members; an elaborate and enormous altar erected in the one communal room of the very small house, with yellow and orange marigolds in elaborate bowed arrangements; candles (so many!) burning constantly, day and night; photos of her father; special foods, the favorites of her father, lovingly prepared and placed in generous servings; and the thick smoke and transcendent smell of copal resin as it burned on pieces of live charcoal on the altar. It was, in effect, magical.
And yet, this was nothing compared to what happened on the night of November 1.
In Mexican tradition (as well as Spain, Portugal and Italy), during the 3-day interval when the veil is thinnest, different ancestors appear at different times. The souls of the children arrive the night of the 31st, so toys, sugar skulls, candy and hot chocolate appear on the altar at that time. On night of the 1st, the adult spirits arrive, so the offerings change: photos of the deceased adult ancestors, mole and carnitas, tamales and pozole, atole (a hot cornmeal beverage) and liquor, cigarettes and other memorabilia. And that's just the household altar. What happens in the graveyards is beyond anything I could ever believe if I hadn't seen it myself.
Families go to the graveyards earlier in the week to start the labor-intensive process of cleaning gravesites. Graveyards in urban areas represent precious land commodities, so if you don't clean your family's gravestones each year, you run the risk of having your families' bones uprooted and discarded in a group gravesite (no joke). There's also a bit of an unspoken competition in the graveyard to make your family's graves more beautiful and elaborate than those of the neighboring sites, which translates to an absolutely spectacular visual feast of yellow and orange flowers, candles and food offerings, all slightly obscured by the thick clouds of copal wafting through the cemetery. The mood is both reverent and festive simultaneously, with a deep sense of power, evoking a tingling of the skin and a belief that anything is possible.
In this time of the thinning of the veil between the worlds, I invite you to try on the belief that our deceased loved ones walk among us. You can make an ancestor altar, or simply light a candle and say their names aloud. If you do either, sit in that magical space you've created and commune with them. They bring messages and yearnings of their own, and just like you and me, the thing they want most is to be heard...and remembered.
Blessings to you and your loved ones, both in this world and the next.