Today is a great day to think about Mexican genealogy. What other culture embraces their ancestors with such joy and spirit? Today is the first day of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a two-day traditional Mexican holiday that honors family members who have past away. With roots in indigenous spirituality and colonial Catholicism, this holiday looks like Halloween and Christmas intermixed—colorful costumes, skulls and bones, elaborate make-up, house decorations, festive foods, and parades. It is traditionally celebrated on November 1 and 2 to coincide with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. But many families celebrate throughout the months of October and November. The centerpiece of this holiday is the special altar built and decorated almost like a Christmas tree.
“My mother would put several tables together to form one very long table for our altar. It stretched almost through our whole house!” said Maria Garcia, a Puebla native who lives and works in New York. “We would set a place for my grandparents and their grandparents. We included their photos and a name sign, favorite foods, colorful flowers, especially marigolds, candles and handmade and toy skulls,” Maria explained. Three categories of death are remembered: children, people who died of normal causes, and those killed, orphaned or who committed suicide. “For that last category, we would put their altar outside behind the house because their souls usually cannot ascend to heaven directly,” Maria said. Day 2 is for visiting the cemetery where gravesites are cleaned, decorated and offerings are left.
Family heirloom items are taken out of storage, such as her great-grandmother’s tablecloths and antique candleholders. Besides the many varieties of skulls, the children and family members place colorful tissue paper flowers with care above and around the table. Food and family stories take center stage during this time. Special bread called pan de muertos, bread of the dead, is a special altar offering and must not be eaten! The bread, similar to challah, is elaborately decorated with dough sculls and saint faces. Other major altar offerings include special chocolate disks, the basis of a spicy hot chocolate beverage, bowls of mole, and beer or mescal.
If you have Mexican ancestry and are interested in researching your family history, there are many websites and many resources available. Two sites that I like are: Mexican Genealogy and Cyndi’s list.
Have you ever been to a Dia de los Muertos event? Please share your experience in the comments section here.