A 'Day of the Dead' Guide for Canadians

Bex vanKoot
Daily Buzz
A girl with her face painted to look like 'Catrina' at a Day of the Dead celebration Mexico (Reuters)

While Canadian Halloween traditions certainly don’t lack for macabre, we tend to focus on some combination of the sexy and the scary, living out our personal fantasies. Maybe it’s this reason that so many of us are drawn to traditions like Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Unlike modern Halloween, Dia de Muertos is primarily about venerating ancestors and welcoming the honoured dead to the party. The traditions are based on the rituals of the Mexica people, rulers of the Aztec Empire. Pre-colonization, rituals celebrating the ancestors were held throughout the month of August. Though we think of Dia de Muertos as an ancient celebration, with roots going back 3,00 years or more, the day itself wasn’t celebrated throughout Mexico until the 1960’s, when it became a national holiday.

After the colonization of the Americas, when the church outlawed many indigenous practices, the rituals and celebrations instead became associated with the Catholic holidays of All Hallows Eve on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on the 2nd. Today on these days, families gather in cemeteries, decorate the graves of loved ones past with marigolds and brightly coloured sand, candles and offerings of food and drinks. They bring lawn chairs, sip beer and listen to music from a nearby mariachi band.

Because so many of us lack traditions that honour our own ancestors, it can be tempting to simply adopt the traditions of others. But you don’t need to fumble your way through rituals that belong to another culture in order to connect with your loved ones who have passed on.

Many cultures share similar traditions

We tend to exotify the images of Dia de Muertos, the common sugar skulls and delicate carvings or clay sculptures of La Calavera Catrina, looking at them as inherently more meaningful than our jack-o’-lanterns and spooky ghosts. But these symbols too have old meanings, taking us back to the European roots of Halloween in Celtic and Germanic traditions. This time of year, halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, marked the end of the Celtic calendar and the final harvest holiday - at one point, it marked the first day of winter.

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, attend Day of the Dead in Pachuca, Mexico. (Reuters)

Early celebrations of ancestor veneration in Europe and across the globe weren’t terribly different from the rituals practiced on this continent thousands of kilometers away. If you want to take some time to give thanks or just pay a little attention to your ancestors this weekend, here are a few practices common to many various traditions.

1. Set up a space.
You don’t have to call it an altar if the religious part is a bit too scary, even for Halloween. A small table, a nice cloth in the corner, or a secluded and sheltered space outdoors all make good dedicated spaces to focus on.

2. Decorate.
Make the space feel sacred somehow. Candles and incense are common, along with flowers, fruits, leaves, cones, and seeds. Art and sculptures that remind you of your family, or your cultural traditions.

3. Make offerings.
Bake bread or make a plate of food. Create some art of your own. Bring things that your ancestors would like - a favourite snack, a beloved drink, something pretty or delicious. Think about your goals, things you can do in honour of your loved ones.

A woman pays her respects at the graves of her relatives in San Andres cemetery, Mixquic. (Reuters)

Join in a celebration

If your interest in Dia de Muertos isn’t just a search for meaning in a death-centric holiday and you want to learn more, join in some of the Latin American cultural celebrations going on around the country. Check out the International Day of the Dead Exhibit on Granville Island in Vancouver, B.C. until November 8, hosted by Simon Fraser University’s International Studies program. Or visit the Day of the Dead Festival on November 7 and 8 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

As Aya de Leon points out in her powerful essay, Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us – Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead: “And in the tradition of indigenous peoples, Chican@ and Mexican-American communities have not told you not to come, not to join, not to celebrate your dead alongside them[…] You arrived at El Dia De Los Muertos like a Pilgrim, starving, unequal to survival in the land of grief, and the indigenous ceremonies fed you and took you in and revived you and made a place for you at the table.”

Take this place at the table for the gift that it is, learn from it, grow your own traditions and respect the traditions of those who have come before us.