Okay, I’m going to confess, holidays are not my thing. Of course I enjoy getting to take the day off, maybe enjoy some special food or drink, or even to spend the day with family and friends. Who doesn’t like that sort of thing! But when you get right down to it, most holidays have become more about the commercial party, than the actual event the holiday is intended to celebrate. So when I moved to Mexico and learned about Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, I was quite surprised to find that not only was it not a Mexican Halloween, but in fact, a holiday celebration that I could understand and appreciate.
With the exception of Christmas, Dia de Los Muertos is now about my favorite holiday. For those who know me, they might find that very odd because I am not a Christian and therefore, having my favorite holiday be the ultimate Christian celebration might seem a bit weird? But the reason I enjoy the Christmas holiday season is that it changes people, and changes the world, even if it is just a few weeks or even one day. Christmas has stopped fighting and wars, healed broken families and friendships, and seems to bring out the best in people as they give their money, time and love in a way that is strangely unique to that single brief time each year. Throw in all the great parties and why would that not be your favorite holiday! I’m not a Christian, but I would love Christmas all year.
I’m not Irish either, but I do enjoy St Patrick’s day too. Nor am I a Mormon, but when I lived in Utah, I loved Pioneer Day, the day that celebrates when the first Mormons entered the Salt Lake valley and proclaimed, “this is the place” they would build their homeland. A free holiday on July 24th, peak golf and BBQ season, why would I not want to celebrate that! So what the heck, I’m not Mexican but that doesn’t mean I can’t grasp and celebrate a traditional Mexican holiday as well. So along came Dia de Los Muertos.
Dia de Los Muertos is actually a 3 day celebration to start with, so I’m not sure why it is not called Dias de Los Muertos. But then again, the largest holiday of the year here is Semana Santa, or Holy Week, also singular, which takes place during a two week period around Easter Sunday. I know, shouldn’t a two week celebration use the plural form of Semanas Santa??? But I digress.
The actual manner that people celebrate Dia de Los Muertos seems to vary in actual detail, but the basic spirit of the holiday is the same everywhere. It is intended to celebrate friends and family members who have died but are not forgotten. It is a very mystical holiday and that is why the celebrations tend to vary. The basic idea is to reconnect with these lost persons to celebrate their lives, their contributions to this world and to maintain their memories. I suppose we all do this from time to time and for lots of reasons, but no matter why or when we we do it, it is healthy and fulfilling in ways most holidays fail.
The “reconnecting” part of the holiday is the mystical element that I find fascinating and what makes the holiday personal and unique to me. As I said, the holiday last 3 days, each with a unique and mystical practice. The event begins on October 31st, with All Hallows Eve, the day the children build small shrines to welcome the souls of the children who will visit on All Saints Day, El Dia de Los Santos, or the next day, November 1st. This is the day to celebrate the souls of lost children, and is also called Dia de Los Angelitos, or Day of the Little Angels. The next day, November 2nd is El Dia de Las Almas, or the Day of the Souls, and people can reconnect with all the lost souls, young and old.
How they reconnect is a mystical process that can include building shrines, setting out gifts, food, drinks or anything the lost soul enjoyed and will want to return and share again with the worldly people left behind. Some simply use the day to go to graveyards and do maintenance on loved ones graves, while others will set up blankets and pillows to welcome the souls after their long journey back. Some leave things like favorite foods and drinks for the souls to also enjoy. The food remains but any nutritional value the food had is gone with the soul when it leaves. Others partake in the worldly delights these souls enjoyed with them in the past, feeling the re-connection they desire through that. Enjoying that piece of chocolate cake with someone who that was their favorite worldly treat for example, or a tequila with an old drinking buddy. The re-connection is brief but important and most of all, fulfilling.
So for the next few days, like I do each year now, I will take a few minutes, or even a few hours, however long it takes, for me to reconnect with some of the people my world has lost but for whatever reason, will not be forgotten and those I will always have a need to reconnect with. For some, it might be simply a way to say goodbye, others to reconcile with, and even others to say thanks to. All are to be celebrated and that is Dia de Los Muertos.
Some vanilla cookies will reconnect me to Kevin, whose death at 4 years old taught this 12 year old, for the first time, the meaning of innocence. Some old baseball memorabilia for Newt, who I miss and regret letting life get us so far apart. A tequila for Felipe, a local who finally drank himself to death a month ago but always treated this gringo with respect and a friendly “Buenos Dias” each day, and someone I did not get to say a proper goodbye. A coffee for Ola, who I spent many weekend mornings with, drinking morning Joe and talking politics and sports on her back patio. A bible for Dan and Sandy, who always wanted me to read it, but seldom do. And I’ll probably actually read a chapter or two of one of Vonnegut’s books, to remind me once again, my understanding of the world.
And the day after, unlike Christmas, July 4th and all those other holidays, there will be no “day after” let down, hangover, empty pockets or stale leftovers. Instead, I’ll only feel the good that all the departed souls I celebrated left with me for that short time each November. A celebration of lives and what they meant to me, then, today and tomorrow. If holidays and the traditions they bring are really supposed to mean something other than commercial profits, Dia de Los Muertos is one all should learn and embrace. It is a holiday that is good for the souls, both yours and those you celebrate!