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TheDay of the Dead

A Guide to Celebrating the Feast of All Souls

Why Celebrate the Day of the Dead?

The Day of the Dead is a feast of the harvest, of gathering memories, and of adding the candles of one's home to the many fires of the community. It is ancient and, to many, a holy time when the dead are thought to return to the earth and mingle with the living. Even if revenants do not revisit us, we can still honor those ghosts who do exist: the ghosts that haunt our minds; our memories of those we love who live no more. Each November 2, we can invite them into our hearts and honor them in our homes. We can use this day to celebrate a part of what makes us human, that remains past the hours of death that come as surely as rivers flow, congested freeway traffic creeps to its multitudinous destinations, and darkness follows sunlight.


Devotions meant to comfort or placate the spirits of the dead first appear before the Christian era, throughout the world. The Christian holiday owes its popular ritual to three earlier celebrations: Parentalia, when Roman families set up altars in memory of the dead; Lemuria, when they blindly threw black beans at those evil souls which had returned to torment the living; and Samhain, the precursor of Halloween, when the gods visited the earth and the dead paid their respects to those living in their former homes. (See Days of Death.)

The first Christian dead to be honored by religious observances on a specified day of the liturgical calendar were the martyrs of the early Church, on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Celebration of the feast (now honoring all saints, both known and unknown) began in the Fourth Century when it was preached by St. Ephrem of Syria and St. John Chrysostom to the Eastern Church. By 844, the feast had spread to the Western Church: Martyrologies, such as that of St. Bede, began listing November 1 as the date of its celebration at this time. Observance of the Feast of All Souls, incorporating many survivals of older religious customs (that had survived centuries of proselytization) originated in the time of St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636). Dead monks were remembered on the Monday following Pentecost. St. Odilo of Cluny (d. 1049) moved the holiday to November 2, the day following All Saints, not coincidentally close to the old Roman and Celtic festivals of Lemuria and Samhain.

Medieval Christians revived the belief that the spirits of the dead walked among us on this day. They left out offerings of food, such as the English soulcakes, so that the cherished dead would feel welcome in their earthly homes.

Belief in Purgatory gave All Souls a meaning that the nonChristian religious holidays had not had. Christians had been bothered by the dualistic division of the dead into the saved and the damned. So many lost loved ones were petty sinners: could a god God, they asked, really deny a man who filched an apple from a merchant's stand His Company and Love for all time? The mythology of the afterlife that arose to comfort the quick included a third place, between Hell and Heaven, where those whose sins were minor were quarantined and disinfected before their eventual admittance to the celestial paradise. The time a soul spent in the purifying fires could be reduced if friends and families offered up prayers for their release. All Souls became the principle day when these devotions were offered (though believers could pray for the repose of their loved ones at any time of the year).

Christianity's encounter with the Aztec religion in the 16th century brought the infusion of new customs. The Aztec Feast of the Dead fell on November 17, when it was customary to offer the heart of a sacrificial victim to the sun god, Tunatiuh. Though ritual murder was replaced by the symbolic cannibalism of Holy Communion, offerings given to Aztec deities were now set upon the altars neophytes constructed for the dead. In the cross, for example, the new Christians recognized the symbol of their former sun god. Marigolds (called cempazochitl in Nahautl), a traditional gift to Xochiquetzal, the mother of the flowering and fruitful earth, were now used to decorate graves and altars. As Prostestantism and Jansenism weeded out superstition-laden observances like All Souls in the Old World, this translation of the feast to native Mexican cultures made for a robust flowering of the cult of the souls in purgatory in the New. Through the Catholic Church and folk beliefs, the rich holiday on which we can rejoin, in our hearts and minds, the deceased has survived, for the joy and comfort of humans as they continue to face the reality of mortality at the onset of the 21st century.

Constructing an Altar

The Mexican Day of the Dead is observed by attendance at Mass and visits to the cemetery. As central to the family celebration of the holiday as fir trees are to Christmas or a huge meal is to Thanksgiving is the arrangement of offerendas (offerings) on an altar.

Favorite foods and mementos of the deceased form a large part of the annual display. Tradition calls for the representation of the Four Elements:

  • Fruits and vegetables from the recent harvest represent Earth;
  • Tissue paper (that moves when the wind blows) is the usual symbol for Air; Mexican Americans have taken to using flags, mylar balloons, and pinwheels;
  • Fire is symbolized by candles, one for each soul being remembered plus an extra flame for the forgotten soul;
  • A glass or bowl of Water completes the tableau.

Other items often appear on the altars, according to personal taste or local custom:

  • Photographs help refresh our memories of the deceased and to show visitors who we honor;
  • Personal mementos are thought to be recognized by the visiting spirits and make them feel welcome;
  • Icons or saint statues or crucifixes serve as religious focal points for the display, much like a Christmas tree is topped by an angel or spire;
  • Incense (copal is usually used) lends a dignified air; it is also said to help the spirits find their way to the altar;
  • Marigolds are the pointsettas of the day; they are also said to attract the spirits by their scent;
  • Favorite foods are placed to stimulate memories and feed the hungry souls who come to visit;
  • Skeletons and skulls appear in many forms, including actual bones, folk art figurines, and elaborately decorated sugar skulls. Here is a link to a gallery of Day of the Dead figurines.

This arrangement is easily adapted for other religious traditions or secular purposes. A Hindu family could replace the crucifix with an image of Shiva, for example; Jewish families might include gefilte fish as a favorite food; iconoclasts can dispense with the saints entirely; African Americans could build the display around a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, etc. (In our household, my wife places a Greek Army campaign medal to represent her grandfather who was killed during the Second World War.)

Do you have photographs of your altar?
Send them to me and I will display them!

For Further Reading

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Pictures: 1. Panteon No. 1, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico; 2. Tecate, Baja California, Mexico 3. El Sauzal, Baja California, Mexico
Photos Copyright 1999, 2000 by Joel GAzis-SAx. All Rights Reserved.