Day of the Dead (for Gringos)

Happy Halloween and feliz día de los muertos! You might have heard about this colorful holiday by watching Disney’s Coco (which, by the way is a fantastic film about it). Contrary to popular belief, Day of the Dead is not at all the “Mexican version” of Halloween. If you’re a cultural outsider like me, you might wonder about the significance of this colorful holiday and also think, how can I get in on the fun?

It's fun, yes, and ALSO, Day of the Dead holds some really beautiful truths that I found so refreshing in the midst of my struggle with grief and loss.

Scroll to the end for 3 ideas on how to celebrate Day of the Dead with your own family!

Day of the Dead holds that death is something to celebrate, not to fear.

Celebrated on Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, Catholic All Souls’ Day, the Day of the Dead combines Mexico’s native, Spanish Catholic, and modern popular culture into a colorful festival complete with dancing skeletons, candy skulls, mini coffin replicas, and paper decorations that line the streets. Sonja Livingston writes in an article about her takeaways from experience of Day of the Dead: “Darkness and light are but one, the psalmist tells us. Our lives are filled with both. Sugar and skulls. Flowers and dust. Love and loss. You cannot embrace one without allowing the other. This is what the Day of the Dead so powerfully illustrates.”

Day of the Dead is a yearly celebration reminding us of our past loved ones.

What if you intentionally took time every year to celebrate and remember your lost loved ones? The Day of the Dead gives us a beautiful picture of what practicing remembrance can look like. An abundance of yellow and orange zempasuchitl “marigolds” decorates cemeteries, homes, and altars to the dead. Celebrants believe that marigolds, and a special bread called pan de muerto, attract the dead spirits to the decorated gravesides, where family members hold vigil around familial altars (ofrendas) in expectation of the spirits’ return.

These ofrendas are filled with photographs, crucifixes, pictures of the Virgin Mary, toiletries, and treats for the visiting spirits, including tequila, cigarettes, toys, and sugar skulls. Feasts are an important part of the festivities as families gather together to eat, share memories and tell stories.

Day of the Dead reflects that death isn’t the end of our relationships.

In some villages, the special Day of the Dead feast actually takes place in the cemetery alongside loved ones’ graves. Continuing that article by Sonja Livingston:

“…Día de Los Muertos provides an offering to the living as well [as to the dead]. Its traditions express a vital faith in human resurrection and communion with God and celebrate the continued possibility for hope, love and connection—even as the body returns to dust. Alleluia, alleluia, the holiday jubilantly proclaims. Life has not ended, only changed.”

Here’s how you can celebrate Day of the Dead, too:

  1. Use a quick internet search to find a cultural celebration in your local area and (respectfully) join in the fun.

  2. Make and decorate your house with colorful papel picado (cut paper banners). Watch this quick tutorial I made here.

  3. Set up your own ofrenda altar to remember the passed loved ones in your own family. Here’s a great article explaining how to do it.

Comment: What ideas sound the most fun or interesting to you?