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It is hard to be out and about much anymore without running across images of skeletons or skulls decorated with colorful hearts, flowers, and swirls. Assumed by many to be a more exotic version of traditional Halloween skeletons, this could not be further from the case. “Sugar Skulls” are iconic symbols of a holiday popular through Latin America called Dia de los Muertos, or Day or the Dead.
Far from macabre images its name implies, Dia de los Muertos is a cheerful and happy occasion where families take time to remember all those loved ones that have passed on. It is a holiday with roots spanning hundreds of years, all the way back to ancient Mesoamerica when the Spanish conquistadors brought Catholicism to the New World. Christian religious traditions blended with the existing indigenous, Aztec celebrations and the Dia de los Muertos holiday was born.
Once a year, during the first week in November, tradition tells that the veil between this world and the next thins and the spirits of our passed are invited to return to us. Lured by the familiar scent of cempasuchil (marigolds), and the smell of warm dishes of their favorite foods, the ancestors are invited back to join the living.
One of the most important elements in the celebration of Dia de los Muertos is the altar. Colorful, multi-layer constructions are built to honor the dead. From small table-top sized ones to huge elaborate creations filling entire yards, altars and ofrendas (offerings) celebrate the lives of those family members that have passed on. The altars are built with love in an effort to both celebrate the person, and help them find their way back to visit with their living family on Earth.
Like any holiday tradition, altars are very personal creations and reflect individual family and local culture. There are few hard and fast rules to what gets included though there are many common elements. First are the personal mementos—such as favorite books, musical instruments, photos, letters, flowers, and dishes of delicious favorite foods. Additionally, many symbolic items are added to an altar such as fresh water for the dead to refresh themselves after their long journey, candles representing the cardinal directions and to light the way home. Strings of colorfully and intricately cut paper flags, called papel picado, represent the wind as they flutter with the slightest movement or breeze. Traditional bread called Pan de Muerto represents gratitude for the gifts of the earth and creation and is also a mainstay on most altars.
The end result is a beautiful creation that tells the rich stories of each family’s history. Altars can be found in people’s homes, in cemeteries, churches, and at Dia de los Muertos celebrations throughout the community. When visiting an altar, one should not hesitate to talk to people standing or sitting next to them. Sharing the stories of loved ones with others is a way to bring them to life and one of the loveliest aspects of the holiday. It’s a way for people to connect with the future while remembering the past.
Dia de Los Muertos is also a time for not just families to gather but communities as well. Local celebrations like the ones at Thanksgiving Point and Utah Cultural Celebration Center provide incredible opportunities for families to learn about or participate in festivities first hand. They serve as showcases of Latin culture to the broader public in an accessible and meaningful way. Events can feature face painting; traditional creations by artisans; music by mariachi bands and Cantantes; modern, folkloric and Aztec dancing—as well as an opportunity to taste amazing traditional foods while you soak in the flavors of this unique celebration.
As Dia de los Muertos has become more popular and visible thanks in part to growing Latino populations and popular films such as Book of Life, and this year’s upcoming Pixar release Coco, expect to see it only increase in popularity. So, seek out an opportunity to experience this joyous holiday in full color because as long as you have familia, this holiday is for you.
Director of Signature Experiences at Thanksgiving Point and therapist intern at the Provo Center for Couples and Families.