With its grinning skeletons dressed in feathered hats and gowns, jewel-eyed sugar skulls and colorful paper garlands, the Nov. 2 “Día de los Muertos,” or Day of the Dead, might appear to many Americans like a Mexican Halloween. But this centuries-old tradition interwoven with Catholicism is much more than a night of ghouls, ghosts and goodies.
The day gets its name from an ancient Aztec belief that the dead could return home to visit their families one day a year. In today’s Catholic Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a time for families to gather, remember their ancestors and pray for the souls of the deceased.
“It’s not a sad occasion,” said Prisciliano Maya, faith formation director at Sacred Heart in St. Paul. “It’s a time to remember and celebrate their [ancestors’] lives. It’s also about family coming together.”
Maya recalled how his family celebrated the Day of the Dead when he was growing up in central Mexico. Early Nov. 1, his father would lead him and his siblings in reciting the rosary. Later that day the family would gather for a meal. Then on Nov. 2 they would spend the day at the cemetery praying and sharing memories of their loved ones.
Like all immigrant groups, Mexicans brought some of their traditions with them to the U.S. Today, it is not uncommon to find Day of the Dead altars, or “ofrendas,” in Catholic churches around the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on All Saints and All Souls days.
Every year at Sacred Heart and other majority Latino churches in the archdiocese, parishioners place pictures of their dead loved ones, flowers, candles and other symbolic items on multi-tiered Day of the Dead altars. (See graphic above.)
At first many of Sacred Heart’s non-Latino parishioners didn’t understand the tradition, Franciscan Father Eugene Michel said. But soon after he explained its significance, he was delighted to see them placing their own family photos on the parish’s Day of the Dead altar.
On Nov. 1 families in Mexico clean and decorate their loved ones’ graves. Many spend the night in the cemetery praying, eating and listening to music.
The Day of the Dead “is all centered around their ancestors,” said Father Eugene, who first experienced the tradition years ago when he lived in Mexico for a brief time. “But what’s different as opposed to Aztec times is that prayer now enters into the picture. Usually there’s a Mass right in the center of the cemetery, where they have an altar.”
“In the second Eucharistic prayer, it says remember, remember, remember. We’re always remembering,” Father Eugene said. “And, we say at Eucharist that remembering isn’t going back, but it’s right now; Christ is present now. So on the Día de los Muertos, when they put all those pictures up, their loved ones are present there. . . . When they gather in the cemetery, their loved ones are present there, too.”
On the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, Mexican families traditionally place altars in their homes with photos of deceased relatives, food, flowers and symbolic items.
Every year at Sacred Heart in St. Paul, which has a majority Latino membership, parishioners contribute items to a temporary Day of the Dead altar in the church. Religious education teachers also construct an altar, shown above, to teach children about this centuries-long tradition.
Below are some of the items on the altar with an explanation of their significance: