It is unexplainable, but this year I have been very drawn to Dia de los Muertos-Day of the Dead. It all started while shopping for a lampshade the day before Halloween. I am not of Mexican descent, but am equal parts Polish and Italian from South Bend, Indiana where long ago, many immigrants settled in the area and built strong communities thick with hope. My grandparents and parents exposed my siblings and I to many traditions from these cultures which I believe plays a strong part in my natural tendency to be attracted to ethnic traditions and rituals.
Over the years, I have collected a few Day of the Dead decorations without really knowing the point of this celebration. Sometimes these decorations are scary to me. Like death. Death can be sad and scary to think about! While shopping for the lampshade, a display of Dia de los Muertos decorations stopped me in my tracks on the way to the cash register. I skimmed through a book that explains the meaning behind the holiday and a very brief explanation that an altar (or ofrenda) is traditionally created to welcome the souls returning to visit their loved ones during the Day of the Dead. A sparkly colorful skull garland and a white skull candle adorned with flowers caught my eye. I love building altars, and I have several deceased family members. The skulls came home with me and so began the creation of something amazing.
As Halloweens of years past were mostly about costumes and candy, this year's was all about the altar which I decided to build on my dining room table. I collected pictures of my grandparents, dad, brother, cousin and aunts and uncles. Some pictures I have displayed in my house. The ones I didn't were not hard to find in my albums and boxes of memorabilia. It was as if they were waiting for me to pull them out and let them breathe on the table! Other items stored away for ages that I found with delight and ease were my dad's fountain pens, smoking pipes, cigar box, a coffee can I saved from visiting my brother during his sickness, my grandmother's rosary, and a colorful doily she crocheted about ninety years ago. They were all like jack-in-the-boxes springing out of their darkness singing Here I Am!
I added candles, garlands of lights, and other meaningful spiritual items I own that naturally found their place on the altar. How fortunate I am to have a bakery close by that provides authentic Mexican pastries and breads. On the way to the grocery store during the day, I stopped in on a whim and took home Day of the Dead Bread (Pan De Muerto) and a small sugar skull which completed the altar. I am thankful to the owner and the women who work there for sharing more about their holiday with me through such meaningful and heartfelt conversation.
The altar came together in a mystical way without much effort and planning. It was meant to be! With a cup of tea, I sat with it for a good long while and reflected on its beauty, cheer, and the depth of its meaning. My heart was lightened and filled with joy despite looking at so many dear relatives I have lost. Rather than remembering the sadness of their deaths or that they died too soon, I gazed at them and thought of many many happy memories and celebrated the good in their lives and that they lived!
The next day, All Saints Day, I showed a few co-workers the picture of my altar after they asked me what I did for Halloween. A few thought I may be digging into my indigenous Aztec roots. I think I was unknowingly digging into my grief to plant some light in it. To create this ofrenda was healing. It was inspiring. It was a celebration of the gift of life, as the aroma of love permeated the air. Simply, the process of this ritual lightened and lifted my heart from a sadness it has been buried in for several years.
My husband encouraged me to share the altar with others so without much planning, I invited friends over the evening of All Souls Day. My friends are like my family because unlike how I grew up living close to all my relatives, my nearest family members are ninety miles away. It was a great change of pace for a Thursday night as the awareness of the festivity rooted in this holiday graced my home. As we gathered around the altar, I have no doubt that my telling of how it and the events of the week serendipitously came together planted a seed in my friends to honor and celebrate their own deceased loved ones in a new way. For me, this is just the beginning of a beautiful and new borrowed tradition.
Rush slowly, love, and live ~