Several years ago, I was co-teaching an 8 week Spanish language and culture class. For the first 15 minutes of each class, I would give the students a look into various aspects of Mexican culture. This one particular class was right before the local Bare Hands Gallery Day of the Dead festival. So, I thought the timing was perfect to share the information and invite the class to come out and experience Day of the Dead, Birmingham style!
A few heads in the room nodded as I began to explain Day of the Dead – Día de los Muertos – but for the most part, I saw confused faces…clearly more explanation was needed. That’s when it hit me and I said.. “How many of you have ever been to decoration day at your church?” Light bulbs started to go off around the room… “well, Day of the Dead is like the Mexican version of this!” And suddenly…everyone was nodding and smiling!
One of the questions I got that day was about how similar Day of the Dead (DOD) seemed to be to Halloween – how maybe it was the Mexican version of Halloween. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. DOD is a celebration of life. It has nothing to do with witches, goblins, spiders and spider webs. It is a time to remember our loved one who have passed on. It doesn’t celebrate death, but it DOES celebrate the lives of our ancestors.
So what are all the sugar skull skeletons about then? If you look at the traditional Halloween skull vs. the Day of the Dead sugar skull, you’ll notice a definite difference in their expressions – one is a bit menacing while the other has a pleasant expression and is very colorful. Sugar skulls or “Calaveras,” represent a departed soul and back in the 18th century, the names of the departed were written on the forehead of the skull and placed on the home altar or the gravestone to honor the return of that person’s spirit.
Offerings, or “ofrendas,” are also a part of the celebration. These are items that were important to the deceased loved one and could be food, drink, a special artifact. During the class, I asked if they had ever seen tokens or items at local cemeteries and several people said yes. For instance, teddy bears or special floral arrangements. So explaining “ofrendas” made more sense when put in those terms.
Speaking of flowers, the flower used for Day of the Dead is the orange marigold, the cempasúchil flower. It was the flower that the Aztecs used to remember their dead by. The color is so vibrant and the belief is that it would guide the souls to their homes and altars on this special day.
DOD takes place over two days and coincides with the Catholic All Saints’ Day and all Souls’ Day on November 1 and 2. November 1 is the day for honoring children and infants or “angelitos,” while November 2 is the day for honoring deceased adults. If you are in Mexico during the first two days of November, there is no mistaking the power of this holiday. In Birmingham, Alabama…it is growing in recognition and in the number of people who want to take part in remembrance.
At the end of the class, many of the students stayed to talk more and ask more questions. I loved being able to share more about DOD and show photos I had taken of the local festival. Several remarked about how beautiful the altars were and how artistic some people were in their presentations. One lady remarked how heartfelt it all seemed and thought about trying to create an altar of her own the following year.
I know I saw several of the students at the festival a few weeks later and that made me smile…