The First thing I say to anyone about this holiday is that: 1.) It is not Halloween; and 2.) the tone is closer to Memorial Day,” says Cesareo Moreno, visual arts director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum.
Moreno is talking about Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). But instead of portraying death as ghoulish and sinister-as with Halloween-Día de los Muertos, celebrated Nov. 1 to 2, honors the lives of those who have died, welcoming their memories and letting them live on through stories and celebrations.
Families celebrate this holiday by setting up ofrendas (offerings or altars) of deceased relatives’ favorite food drink, flowers, photos, candles and colorful objects such as skulls and skeletons. They gather to tell stories about the people they miss. They believe on these days, their loved ones come to visit. And they want to welcome them home with a meal and open arms.
“When we make our ofrendas, I think of it as my father coming back and seeing that we remember him in a happy way with music and delicious food and stories and his favorite cigars,” says Laura Cid-Perea, mother of two and co-owner of BomBon Bakery, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
In Mexico, families set up graveside ofrendas and hold night vigils. In the United States, families set up ofrendas at home, often on the dining room table.
Mexican bakeries-including Cid-Perea’s-also prepare special treats, such as pan de los muertos (bread of the dead) and brightly colored, skull-shaped sugar candy called calaveras.
But the celebration isn’t morbid, says Cid-Perea. In fact, it helps kids understand death in a healthy way. “A lot of times we think of death as something scary, and in Mexico, we look at it as passing to a better place, and we celebrate that. For a kid, it’s a beautiful way of understanding life and death.”
Moreno agrees. “Death is not evil; it is part of life,” he says. “It is not the opposite of life. Out of death comes life. Even though it’s called the Day of the Dead, it is really a celebration of life.”