Día de los Muertos, commonly known as “Day of the Dead,” has long been my favorite holiday and it’s important that my children understand why we salute life by honoring the deceased.
The Day of the Dead, a two-day annual observance beginning on November 1, originated with the Aztecs and other pre-Hispanic civilizations. Each year, families pay respect to the dead with lively celebrations during which souls of the departed join them for the festivities.
When I was a kid back in Mexico City, I always anticipated Día de los Muertos with excitement. At school, students prepared the ofrendas (altars) with offered mementos and enjoyed a lunch of traditional Mexican dishes. The best part was gathering with my entire family, from the little ones to the abuela, at the cemetery to visit the graves of our ancestors. We held hands and prayed for the souls of loved ones while decorating the area with cempasuchil flowers (marigolds), candles, papel picado (colorful paper), and incense.
When the grave was ready, we made an offering to each ancestor. For example, if one had loved tequila or dessert, he or she would receive a favored bottle or treat. Then, a mariachi band played the deceased’s favorite songs while everyone sang and danced.
“We salute life by honoring the deceased.”
The family also feasted on delicious traditional Mexican dishes, such as the pan de muerto (Mexican sweet bread), paired with hot cocoa. We read aloud the Calaveritas that my mom wrote for each of us — funny poems with satirical verses— and received sugar and chocolate skulls bearing our names.
I wish that my three kids could, at least once, experience these magical moments in Mexico, but with complicated school schedules preventing us from traveling, we celebrate at home in New York. Each year, we prepare an altar de muertos, though not as fancy as what you find in Mexico, and I take my children to our favorite bakery to buy pan de muerto to dunk in coffee or hot chocolate. We’ve also visited the Museo del Barrio (museum) for arts-and-crafts or the Catholic church to enjoy food and music and dance with the community. (For kids curious about the holiday, I would recommend watching Disney’s Coco).
And each year my mother sends us Calaverita poems, which we read aloud. Although she lives far away, the kids know that abuelita had them in mind when writing the poems, seeking out their accomplishments to include in a satirical way. I’ve kept each one.
Día de los Muertos is not only a celebration of life — it’s a reminder that life is merely loaned to us, that it’s another cycle of existence, as the Aztecs believed. I like to remind my kids, especially during this holiday, to enjoy life each day because we never know when the “calaca” will call our number.
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