Before the chill comes into the late summer air, you see the orange and black decorations pop up in windows; Halloween. If you’re of Mexican or Hispanic origin or if you live in neighborhoods where there is a large Hispanic population, you probably see Halloween decorations side by side with decorations for El Dia de los Muertos. But what is this strange holiday? Why are the celebrants so celebratory; isn’t Halloween supposed to be a scary thing? What does this all mean?
El Dia de los Muertos, translated into English means “the day of the dead.” El Dia de los Muertos finds its birth during ancient times. According to a piece on About.com (1), when the Aztecs were still around, they held “a month long summer celebration overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead.” When the Aztecs ceded to the Spanish and Catholicism was instituted as the dominant religion, “customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints’ Day on November 1.” El Dia de los Muertos actually lasts three days; October 31 through November 2 each year. El Dia de los Muertos is one of the biggest celebrations in Mexico and the even has definitely translated into Hispanic neighborhoods domestically.
What It Is: El Dia de los Muertos has celebrations which vary depending on the region of the territory you’re in; even in the United States there could be several different types of celebrations going on amidst different families or groups in the same area. One of the more common customs of the holiday is “the making of elaborate altars to welcome departed relatives. Festivities also include traditional foods such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead).”
Celebrating With Kids: The Hispanic branch of my own family actually celebrated El Dia de los Muertos when I was visiting them one fall when I was younger. My grandmother actually asked my mother if I could come visit with them then for this very reason. Being a child of eight or nine, I recall being very taken with the very somber nature of this ceremony with my grandmother. My aunts eventually took us trick or treating but to begin the evening my two aunts, my bio-dad, and all the children all gathered at the home of my grandparents. My elderly grandmother was a very religious person and the ceremonies she conducted reached back to relatives I’d never even known existed as well as related friends I’d also never known. My grandmother extinguished the lights save long wick candles and incense; she took out religious paraphernalia; porcelain statues, beads, and a Bible; and actually went into something of a trance. She was saying some Spanish language prayer and I recall thinking how odd it was that no one got up and said anything.
I guess my only advice for parents trying to find ways to celebrate this holiday with your kids is to perpare them for it. I didn’t grow up around my Hispanic family so I was something of a visitor to thier world. But especially if your family doesn’t partake in ritual that often, make sure your kids know what to expect and why. I didn’t rock the boat then (probably like I wouldn’t rock the boat now) but El Dia de los Muertos will always hold an odd footnote in my memory.