“You have skulls under the skin of your own faces, bones beneath your flesh. Like all mortals, you seek ways to understand death, to befriend it, and celebrate it in the context of celebrating life and love.” Aya de Leon, Author.
Today I am 50. I share my birthday with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, ‘El Dia de los Muetos’ as it is called in Spain and Mexico. The traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead, its history throughout the past thousands of years, and its meaning for us today are rather intriguing. It is a joyful, sacred celebration and a time to welcome the souls of the dead every year. It is considered the most auspicious day of the year for the dead and the living to communicate. The living and the dead are reunited for a short time over this period.It is a community celebration, a three day fiesta, party, food and booze, yet also a private family event. Some families open their homes so you can celebrate with them, visit their altar, ‘ofrenda’ which is decorated traditionally with flowers and sugar skulls. Artisan skull makers spend months making sugary delights to please the spirits in good time for this event. Indigenous families often spend up to two months’ salary on their preparations and offerings to their dead relatives, believing this will bring protection, luck and prosperity.
Flowers are vitally important for the celebrations, intricately woven throughout the home, it is the marigold flower or ‘cempasuchil’ that has been used since the pre-Columbians, to honour the dead on altars and graves. It is a favourite plant of mine and one that I use for healing, making balms for stings and scratches collected in my garden. Altars are laden with delicacies and favourite foods of the departed. Families gather in their local graveyards at night to meet with the souls. Graves are cleaned and decorated with candles and flowers. Musicians play. It lasts for three days. Time spent at the cemetery on the Day of the Dead differs from place to place. In some towns, people stay there whole night. The departed children called ‘los angelitos’, are remembered on November 1st, while November 2nd focuses on the adults. In essence, it is a celebration of life as ancestors briefly return to the relatives they left behind, and most notably, it takes the fear away from death. Unlike Halloween, designed to scare and spook, the Day of the Dead demonstrates, love, respect, family, community, brings the topic death to the living and shows us our lives should indeed be well-lived and celebrated. It is humorous, a lot of fun, a three day holiday and the best time of the year to connect with those gone before us. I’ll drink to that, and I am happy to share my birthday with a tradition that supports those values. Cheers!