Days of the Dead (November 1 & 2) are not the same as Halloween at all, but I’ve always done part of the decorating with Halloween to avoid having to put up two completely different sets of decorations in two days. You can use the marigolds and skulls for both. Johnny starts making the food on Halloween, a holiday he doesn’t like,* and now the house is full of the aromas of pan de los muertos, with anise, cinnamon, orange, and cardamom included in the yeasty dough. I like it better than the Christmasy smells. Días de los Muertos are even bigger family reunions than Christmas, because they include all your ancestors as well as still-breathing relatives.
It’s weird. Días de los Muertos are extremely public holidays, with everyone in town setting up ofrendas, or altars; lighting candles; hanging papel picados; strewing marigolds everywhere—churches, cemeteries, homes. And yet, it’s incredibly personal for me. It’s about my ancestors. So I won’t post a photo of my ofrenda, but here’s the rosary mi bisabuela, my great-grandmother, gave me for my Confirmation. If the house were on fire, after people and animals were safe, I’d grab my rosary and my laptop (which is why I store my laptop near my ofrenda at night), because my great-grandmother spent money she did not have to buy me a Guadalupe rosary. Sometimes Father Nathan has similar ones.
From the time I was allowed to use scissors, I spent September and October cutting out papel picados for relatives I’d never met. From the time I was old enough to babysit (all my siblings and cousins, ¡caramba!), I had them cutting up colored paper to hang around their ofrendas. Yes, you can buy cute papel picados, but why would you when you have so much free labor in the form of snot-nosed brats? Are you saying there’s something better than a five-year-old’s first adventures with dangerous implements?
My great-grandmother died in my freshman year of college, and suddenly I had a purpose in my arts and crafts. I made one especially for her and then for JD’s mother the next year, after she died. No, I’m not showing you those either.
In addition to papel picados, we start making paper marigolds the day after Ascension Day. Why? After all, my mother the event planner gets special deals from flower farms all over Texas, and I could deck the halls and the porches too with a million orange marigolds. The first time I did that in college, after my friends and I moved into Casa Cortez, we discovered JD was allergic to marigolds. That year, he changed bedrooms with Johnny, who slept in the garage apartment, and thereafter we kept the live marigolds outside and made paper ones for indoors. I figured I’d be done with paper crafts after I grew up and moved away from home. It’s sinking in that I never will.
At Gregg House we set up public altars, both in the lobby and on the porches, where you can put photos of your loved ones and offer flowers and food. Those of us who don’t have relatives buried locally sprinkle marigold petals from the Catholic cemetery to Gregg House.** Darryl made up a story that cemeteries serve as communications hubs for the dead, and that way your relatives in other other towns can find their way to your ofrenda by following marigold petals. It’s amazing how quickly it’s caught on. Even Father Emilio likes it.
And of course, there’s dancing. So much dancing. How can you celebrate without dancing?
So there’s my Hispanic heritage and holiday posts. I hope you got your taxes in on time, ate lots of candy for Halloween, and enjoy sweet communion with your ancestors these two days. Feliz días de los Muertos.
* Johnny the cat vet has strong feelings about how black cats are treated in October. He celebrates the holiday by picking up as many stray black cats as he can find and keeping them in the overflow town shelter he set up in back of Gregg House.
** Not JD, of course. He’d be red and swollen and sneezing after a block. He stays home and writes cavaleritas, sarcastic little poems about everyone he knows and everyone in the news. He thinks a holiday that includes writing poetry is the coolest thing ever.