Friday, October 31, 2014

el día de los muertos... what does it mean?

celebrating el Día de los Muertos in Tulsa

What do you know about el Día de los Muertos, the celebration of Day of the Dead? 

Here's an overview of what it is and what it means to Catholics, and to Latinos in particular. The text is from an photo essay I wrote for the November 2013 issue of St. Anthony Messenger Magazine:

From my grandmother Josefita I learned that the Communion of Saints is real, not some exotic superstition, too mystifying to believe.

Every November 1st and 2nd, for the feasts of All Saints and All Souls—el Día de los Difuntos, Josefita’s Caribbean home altar grew both in size and candle-power, intermingling the holy and the personal: saints holy cards, prayers, flowers and photos of deceased family members.

Her personal memorial echoed the larger one celebrated at our parish, where we gathered together to honor and remember the dead and thank God for their lives, followed by a family visit to the cemetery.

Coming together to remember and celebrate is a very Catholic idea, as is thinking of death as a joyous occasion—the essence of Day of the Dead observances.

But to non-Hispanic Catholics, the ornate human skeletons typically used as decorations may seem macabre, even morbid, and more reminiscent of Halloween decor or a Tim Burton film than of a spiritual celebration.

Except el Día de los Muertos is not a Latino Halloween. These skeletons, or calacas, are traditionally depicted joyous rather than grisly or ghoulish. And they are characteristically shown in festive clothing, dancing or celebrating, to indicate a happy after life.

Similar celebrations and rituals celebrating the lives of ancestors appear in ancient cultures in Asia and Africa, stretching as far back as the Egyptians, and foreshadowing Catholic understanding of the communion of saints.

Whether the Mayan in Central America, the Incas in South America, or the Aztec in Mexico and Guatemala—the Day of the Dead is predominantly celebrated in countries with heavy indigenous roots, who customarily welcomed back the deceased for an annual encounter with their loved ones.

There is no way to describe a typical Día de los Muertos since each country—and even each region or town—has its own specific traditions.

In the Philippines, the feast of Todos los Santos (All Saints, November 1) is a holiday resembling a festive family reunion at the cemetery. The public holiday of Finados (Day of the Dead) in Brazil is celebrated on November 2nd with visits to churches and family graves.

Building and flying giant kites at the gravesites is the highlight in Guatemala. For food, families make fiambre, an elaborate salad dish made only for this day every year. The all-encompassing dish, with over 50 ingredients, varies from family to family, with recipes passed down from generation to generation. Tradition calls for families to share their unique fiambre with other families on the Day of the Dead.

In Mexico, where the feast has perhaps the highest prominence, el Día de los Muertos is a national holiday. The home altars are decorated with candles, crosses, images of the Virgin Mary, and covered with ofrendas, favorite items of the deceased. El Pan de muertos—bread of the dead—is shaped like bones or calaveras, skulls.

Pre-Christian traditions taught that the scent of the person’s favorite foods, along with the fragrance of flowers and incense, invite the deceased to return. While the souls inhale the scents, the tamales, mole and atole are for the living to enjoy with others.

In some parts of Mexico, after cleaning and decorating the graves, families spend the night of November 1st at the cemetery participating in a festive celebration of food, live music, Mass, and remembering—telling stories of their ancestors to the children.

In the United States, observance of el Día de los Muertos has spread thanks to Mexican-American communities, where traditional celebrations at parishes and school blend culture and Church tradition, often incorporating into the celebration specific aspects of their immigrant experience.


Variations aside, what all Day of the Dead observances have in common is a joyous encounter with the Communion of Saints, reminding the living that death is the next step on our journey into the fullness of life.

from my home altar