There’s something uniquely cathartic about having a day set aside to focus on celebrating the life of a loved one who has passed on. When you lose someone, so much attention is paid to the mourning process. But what about the vivacity of the life they lead — the light that they brought to your life, and the character that made them special?
Today marks the beginning of the Day of the Dead, or as it’s known in Spanish, el Día de los Muertos. Originating from Mexico, the holiday has become more and more popular in the United States during recent years, especially in places with a large Mexican population.
A huge aspect of el Día de los Muertos focuses on coming together as a community to celebrate our dearly departed. Death is, after all, just a fact that we must all face and endure. Mass celebration opens the doorway to connection between you and your loved one, as well as connection between you and those still living.
El Día de los Muertos happens over two different days, November 1st & 2nd. The first day focuses on celebrating the lives of deceased infants and children, while the subsequent day focuses on adults who have passed.
Last October, my grandmother, someone who was very impactful in my life, passed away. She was the type of person who loved to be in the moment and indulge in happiness. I’m looking forward to celebrating with happy memories and perhaps a few of the following 7 Day of Dead traditions…
1. Build an altar and/or decorate the gravesite.
You can celebrate in your own home by creating an altar containing tangible memories of your loved one. Traditionally, these altars include crosses and religious figurines, as well as photos, favorite objects, flowers (such as marigolds), paper skeletons, and favorite foods.
But keep in mind that the altar can contain whatever you want it to — this is your celebration!
2. Bring some marigolds into your life.
Marigolds are considered the signature Day of the Dead flower because of their bright color and distinctive scent. The idea is that you are trying to bring your loved one back to the world of the living so you can communicate with them. The marigolds, thus, are meant to signal to the dead and guide them back to you.
3. Work on an art project.
Always an advocate of working through feelings through art and creativity, I love the artistic aspect of el Día de los Muertos. One tradition is to make paper skeleton versions of your loved one, including signature accessories or objects in the design. Candied skulls are another one (see below), as well as printmaking.
4. Set out a sweet offering.
Setting out favorite foods, especially candies and sweetbreads, helps you make sure your loved one’s spirit is well fed when they come visit. NPR’s The Salt brings us an awesome article about the different types of customary Day of the Dead foods and their significances. And for an awesome sugar skull recipe, check out this one from the Other Side of the Tortilla blog.
5. Get together with people in your community.
Aside from somewhere to eat, drink, and dance, also look for a Day of the Dead parade in your area. Parades and processions are a huge part of this tradition in Mexico and large cities, and many smaller cities are starting to hold them, as well. For instance, in Missoula, MT, where I went to college, the Day of the Dead parade is a huge annual event!
6. Bring your loved one to life through story.
In spending time with your living friends and family members, take the time to consciously remember those who are missing by sharing stories. You don’t have to do this with a heavy heart, nor do you have to block yourself off from all emotion. It’s OK to feel however you may feel. The important thing is that we are all mortal, we’re all in this together, and we’re all lucky for the time we spend on this Earth.
7. Go dancing!
Because obviously. I mean, when isn’t a good time for salsa dancing? Look for a salsa night in your area. If you can’t find anything happening on the exact date of el Día de los Muertos, try for something later in the week. Nothing says “celebration of life” like getting out of your shell and trying something new!