Decoding The Day of the Dead

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Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is not about death… it’s about celebrating life and welcoming back the spirits of the dearly departed.

That’s the best way to explain this event that originated in Mexico and Central America with the Aztecs more than 3000 years ago and is now celebrated November 1 and 2.

If you’re dying (had to say it) to learn how you can commemorate the life of someone you love in this Latino tradition, read on…

First things first: Build an altar to honor your ancestor, either somewhere in your home or at their gravesite. This doesn't have to be elaborate, a table or a shelf will work. But it is important because you’ll need some place to put all the stuff you gather to honor those in the afterlife. What stuff? Well…

Food: Traditionally tamales (yum!), Pan de Muerto (a sweet bread meant to represent the earth), and pumpkin or amaranth seeds are placed on the altar as a snack for the visiting spirits. But if your ancestor liked brisket… go for it.

Booze: What was your ancestor’s favorite libation? Get a bottle (or two) for the altar and another for you and your family members to toast the life of the departed. Day of the Dead Food Sugar Skulls: I’m sure you’ve seen this traditional folk art from Southern Mexico. The elaborately decorated skulls are made from pure sugar and usually have the names of those who have passed written in icing across the forehead. Sugar Skulls Papel Picado: This colorful, delicate tissue paper is hung like a banner around the altar and represents just how fragile life can be. Day of the Dead Decorations: Papel de Picado Candles: You’re going to want to load up your altar with candles. Lots of candles. Not only does it make the altar REALLY dramatic, it represents the light that guides your ancestor home. Day of the Dead Altar Monarch Butterflies: These butterflies make their appearance in Mexico about this time of year, which is why they are believed to be the spirits of visiting ancestors. Monarch ButterflyPhotos: Almost forgot! You'll want everyone to know who's being honored, so prop up a couple of pictures of your ancestor on the altar. Try to get images of things they did in every day life.

You've got it covered now… you’re ready to honor the spirit of someone you love who is in a much better place (we hope). If doing all of this seems a bit overwhelming, the Smithsonian has a great interactive Day of the Dead website that will let you do it virtually. Click here to see it!

So much easier than building an altar… but you won’t get to enjoy any tamales!   Oaxacan black clay Skull with candle


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