YESTERDAY WE TALKED ABOUT the Celtic pagan and Druidic origins of Halloween and the day before that I resurrected an old post on Dreaming with the Dead: Contacting Departed Loved Ones Through Dreams.

Today, I’d like to talk about Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It is a Latin (Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Italy) holiday that has become very visible and popular with non-latinos over the last few years.

Day of the Dead is actually celebrated on November 2 and Day of the Little Angels (Dia de los Angelitos) is celebrated on November 1. It is believed that the gates of heaven open up at sunset on October 31 and all of the spirits of children who have died come back to be close to their family until sunset on November 1. At sunset on November 1, the children spirits go back to heaven and the adult spirits come to hang out until sunset on November 2. Yes, this time halfway between the vernal equinox and the winter solstice is believed to be a sacred time when death is so close to life to cultures all over the world. In the case of Latin America, however, ancient Aztecs and other pre-Columbian civilizations used to honor their dead for what today would be considered the entire month of August (obviously, the ancients of the Americas did not know what “August” was). The Spanish conquistadors came in and merged some of their own rituals for honoring the dead with the indigenous rituals of Latin America and put it all on the official Catholic holiday of All Saint’s Day. It was a sort of “All conquered nations will now move their ancestor worship to these two days so that we can monitor and control it . . . or else,” move.


Now, with Day of the Dead, instead of trying to trick or scare goblins, demons and ghosts away, participants instead spend many weeks building ofrendas, or altars with offerings, to their ancestors and departed loved ones. They also spent/spend a lot of time and money creating and curating sweet treats, sweet breads, sodas, water, alcohol and other favorites to put on the altars to offer their departed loved ones. All of this is done in bright colors and in good spirits because a celebration of death is also a celebration of life. All of the sweets and photos and bright colors on the ofrendas are meant to beckon ancestors/departed loved ones to return for a day. The food and beverages are needed by the spirits to give them the strength (and motivation) to travel and hang out for a bit– it’s not easy to be a spirit in a physical plane.  On November 2, families will often meet in cemeteries to have a picnic and clean or wash gravestones as well.

How to Celebrate Day of the Dead Without Being an Asshole

Yet it’s the bright, yet macabre, decor, the fun and the themed sweets that have caught the attention of the masses. In the last several years it has become popular to dress as a sugar skull or Catrina for Halloween. It’s become common to have Day of the Dead themed parties and decor. I’m not Latina but I will remind you that the Day of the Dead is sacred. While I don’t see anything wrong with thoughtfully and respectfully engaging in your own Day of the Dead-inspired rituals, I would caution you against dressing up as a sugar skull or a Catrina for Halloween and then getting shit faced. That’s not exactly respectful and I sure as hell don’t want to piss off any spirits . . . or living communities.

If you appreciate the aesthetic of Day of the Dead, then by all means, buy some paraphernalia and then take the time and effort to actually use it the way it is intended: create an altar with photos and memorabilia from your departed loved ones. Add sugar skulls, sweet bread, Catrina dolls and bright colors. Add candles and marigolds. Express gratitude, say prayers and invite your loved ones to return for a night. Go to the cemetery, alone or with as many family members as you can muster, and clean up the gravesites of your ancestors. Take a picnic and set aside the first serving of food for your ancestors. (DON’T eat the offered food later. When you are done, ask a tree for permission to leave the food at its base. If you feel the food is appropriate to leave as an offering to the little critters of the area, you could do that. Or throw it away. But don’t eat it. It’s energetically dead and kind of gross.)

Happy ancestors and family spirits are believed to bring good luck and blessings for the next year– and I believe it! No spirit is as interested in your well-being and quality of life as an ancestor spirit is. No spirit can help or protect you like an ancestor spirit. The least you can do is throw a party for them one night.  And if you have kids, get them to participate! I can only imagine what my life would be like, what my spiritual life would look like, if I had grown up in a culture where ghosts were welcomed and death was celebrated with all of the colors, indulgences and revelry of life.

Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at some of the symbols and traditions of this time of year, you won’t want to miss it!


P.S. I’ve recently enjoyed resurrecting old newspaper articles I wrote when I was a young reporter in Iowa and Illinois (2005-2006). I guess I’ve always had a thing for ancestors and the dead.

About Day of the Dead:

Families Honor the Dead

Day of the Dead Keeps Memories Alive

Celebrating the Dead: [Museum] sets Altars on Display for Annual Day of the Dead Ceremony

Honoring the Present and Honoring the Dead:

How to Memorialize Your Pets (don’t forget to include them in your Day of the Dead celebrations!)

He Enjoys Spending a Day with His Son