Growing up in suburban Chicago, I knew nothing of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. My friend Kelly, who has lived all over the place, really brought the holiday out of the periphery for me and showed me what a wondrously joyful tradition it is, shedding a bright light on places other cultures prefer to leave in the shadows, celebrating the lives of the dead.
"Many people believe that during the Day of the Dead, it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. People will go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, and will build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, and photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.
Plans for the festival are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the period of November 1 and November 2, families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas, or offerings, which often include orange marigolds called "cempasúchitl" (originally named cempoalxochitl, Nahuatl for "twenty (i.e., many) flowers"). In modern Mexico this name is often replaced with the term "Flor de Muerto" ("Flower of the Dead"). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.
Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or little angels), and bottles of tequila, mezcal, pulque or atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased's favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto ("bread of the dead") or sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the "spiritual essence" of the ofrenda food, so even though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives."
Although Monkeyrotica has three relatives that are buried locally, his dad and his paternal grandparents, we have never celebrated this holiday in a cemetery. We've spent it with friends and have had quieter festivities, in a more "spiritual-essence-of-it-all" way.
Tomorrow, we're planning to head over to the National Museum of the American Indian, like we did last year. We'll be getting there early this time! Last year, we were late, missed all the demonstrations and dancing, but enjoyed ourselves anyway. The girls loved the paper flowers and wore them in their hair.