We are naturally enlivened by our imagination around the cycles of life and death and as symbol makers we are often comforted by ritual when the big questions about what happens to our loved ones when they die insert themselves into our lives.
The people of ancient Mexico, the Aztecs or more specifically, the Nahuas, celebrated the dead in a great feast, which was far more elaborate than the one we celebrate today, but laid the ground work for the Mexican feast known as Días de los Muertos (Days of the Dead). When the Spaniards conquered the Mexican Empire, they brought Christianity with them. They forced their religious practices on the Indians who while recognizing similarities between some of the Christian practices and their own, struggled with the notion of a “painful hell full of demons and evildoers”1. They complied with the Christian demands by inserting their own rituals into the church calendar but kept their core beliefs, such as the ofrenda (offerings presented on an altar). They merged their own symbols with the Spanish symbols of death, saints and martyrs.
Sugar skulls (calaveritas de azúcar) decorated with flowers, names and decoration were exchanged as offerings and placed on the Días de los Muertos altars along with images of Guadalupe, flowers, water, bread, food, drink, candles and copal.
In the 1960’s, Chicano living in the US, wanting to reclaim their roots, took the ofrenda to a new art form. Beyond the intimate and devotional nature of the celebration, the new interpretation of the traditions had taken on a political aspect. They became more like Halloween parades complete with Samba bands and costumes which by the 1970’s became a feature of the celebration in Oaxaca.
Today, we borrow from the original tradition of honoring our loved ones who have passed on by remembering their contributions in this world and offering them feasts, luring them back to a day of play, food, music and fun. Traditionally, it was believed that the spirits of children returned on November 1st, following the scent of Cempazuchitl or marigolds (known as the flower of death) and food set on the altars. They had to return by noon though so the adults can come out by November 2nd. Humor is an important part of the celebration and the calacas (skeletons) are often portrayed in silly costumes and involved in dancing and merrymaking. Copal , a scented resin is burned at the ofrenda, and Pan de los Muertos, an orange blossom flavored bread is baked for the dead. Papel picado, tissue paper banners are carefully cut with scenes.
The sting of death can be difficult to deal with and if you are grieving the lost of a loved one, ritual can be helpful for processing the pain. Try constructing your own ofrenda using some of the standard offerings here or create your own . Some ideas include drinks for the spirits long journey home, food, candles to light their path, Mole, a sweet stew popular in Mexico, marigolds, baskets of fruit and pictures of your loved ones.1. “El Corazón de la Muerte: Altars and Offerings for Days of the Dead” Rafael Jesús González, Oakland Museum of California, 2005