People visiting Mexico at this time of year will undoubtedly see references to Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The colorful iconic figures of decorated skulls and dancing skeletons may lead some to believe that it is part of the American/European tradition of Halloween. It is not.
Day of the Dead is a pre-Christian, multi-cultural tradition which took root in Mexico centuries ago, possibly as early as the Aztec civilization. And despite its somewhat scary title the holiday is a celebration and a memorial to the lives of family and loved ones who have already passed on. Traditionally there are two days in this holiday. On November 1st children who have passed are remembered, and on November 2nd deceased adults are recalled.
As the first days of November approach, families in Mexico begin preparing ofrendas or small altars or shrines. The ofrenda will often be decorated with photographs of dead family members, along with flowers, candy, and various images of the calavera and calaca…the skull and the skeleton. Skulls are made of spun sugar and decorated like a cake. Paper skeletons are portrayed in all manner of dress and behavior (often comic). These figures are not meant to be scary but to show death is not to be feared but instead laughed at as having no power over us.
As the days of celebration approach, the altar will also be filled with the things the deceased may have enjoyed in life. Alcohol, cigarettes and favorite foods are placed on the ofrenda. We even saw a marijuana cigarette placed on one! Water and a special bread called pan de muerto (bread of the dead) are also included in the gifts to the dead.
The purpose of the ofrenda is to call the spirits of the deceased back to this world so that they might experience the love that is still felt for them here. On the days of the dead families will have memorial dinners or visit the graves of loved ones. It is meant to be a happy remembrance of those who have passed. Sadness is discouraged as it is said tears will make the path back to this world too slippery for the spirits to make the journey.
We fell in love with this tradition when we first moved here to Mexico and found it to be a wonderful alternative to the fear and suppression of death often experienced in Anglo-American culture. We quickly adopted the tradition for ourselves and have built an ofrenda every year since moving to Playa del Carmen.
When we were first visitors to this area we often would stop and admire an ofrenda only to be told all about the deceased individual by the altar’s owner. We cherish those memories lovingly shared by people about their departed loved ones and still remember some of their stories.
On our ofrenda this year we celebrate family and friends who have passed away:
John Vernon Head ~ Tony’s older brother John was only 63 when he passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack this past June. He had lived his life fully as a loving son, brother, father and grandfather to his four children and grandchild. He had been a lawyer admitted to practice law in several states and for many years operated his own law firm. Although a tough-minded and practical attorney, he still delighted in his family, directing great celebrations for Halloween, Christmas and birthdays where he would even bake the cakes. He was as sweet as he was strong.
Tony’s Mom and Dad, Jack and Rosalie Head ~ Rosalie’s picture is her high school graduation picture showing her red hair, green eyes and bright Irish American smile. Jack’s picture is when he was 21 just after he made corporal in the Marines on the eve of WWII. It is inscribed “To Rosalie, The Sweetheart of the Marines.” On the back of the picture of Rosalie is a brown smear. It is Jack’s blood. The picture was inside his shirt on the island of Guam when he was hit by mortar fire. He carried it with him through the rest of the war, and still had it when he returned after the war to marry Rosalie. They remained together until Rosalie passed in 1997. Jack passed away in 2002.
Cheri’s dad, Ed Skultety ~ Ed is pictured on our altar in his US Air Force uniform. He spent twenty years in the Air Force serving honorably in Vietnam. He was later stationed stateside, mostly in Omaha, Nebraska. He married Sally Vernon (Cheri’s mom who now lives in Sacramento) and together they had six children. He retired from the Air Force in 1974 with the rank of Master Sergeant. That year he and the family moved from Nebraska to Pennsylvania where Ed had grown up and where much of his family still lived. He passed away in Pennsylvania in 1985.
Bill and Barbara Oates ~ Bill and Barbara were one of the strongest, most loving couples we ever met. They lived through a time when interracial couples (Bill was black, Barbara white) were often ignored, treated with disdain, or worse. They never complained, never returned the hatred they occasionally saw and never looked back. They held on to each other no matter what. They found a wonderful life in San Francisco where they were known at every good restaurant and decent bar in town. After they got older and ill they passed away within a few months of each other…it seemed they couldn’t live without one another. We miss them very much.
Our Pets ~ We also include on our ofrenda some of the many pets which have lived with us, brightened our lives and given us their love, including Huggybear, Belle, Pixie and Carib and the latest of these, our cat Shammy. Shammy was 21 years (over 100 in equivalent human time) when he passed just a few days ago.
Over the next few days we will take time to remember each of these members of our family. We will treasure those memories and renew our love for them. It is our hope that if the spirits of the dead pass this way tonight and tomorrow, they will feel nothing but the love we still have for them.
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