Offerings of Love

Who does not love a good festival?  Great food, music, displays, and handicrafts…  They offer a little something for everyone and a lot of opportunity to learn more about local customs and traditions.  And while many towns and cities throughout Mexico are finalizing months worth of plans for community Día de Muertos celebrations, the most important and meaningful of these preparations take place at home.

It is believed that at midnight on October 31, and again, on November 1, the gates of heaven open for a 24 hour period.  At this time, the souls of the departed may return to visit with their loved ones here earth.  There is a belief that the dead provide their families protection, good luck, and wisdom from beyond the grave.  Therefore, souls are welcomed home in grand fashion.  Families erect altars in honor of the deceased.  These altars are not shrines, rather, they are ofrendas, or offerings, designed to lead the spirits home.

There is rich symbolism in each of the items included in the ofrenda.  These vary regionally, depending on the local customs, traditions, and/or the availability of special foods, drinks, and flowers.  Cost even factors in; some families may spend two month’s worth of earnings!

Ofrendas  have two, three, or seven levels, representing earth, heaven, purgatory, and/or the steps necessary to reach

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Ofrenda welcoming the soul of Buz, by his wife, Patty
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The ofrenda displayed in my home

heaven.  Photographs of the deceased are prominently featured.  Flowers, whose strong scents and bright colors are believed to guide the way, are arranged on the ofrendas.  Some people, use petals from the flowers to create pathways from the door to the altar, extra insurance that loved ones do not lose their way.    Baby’s Breath is often used on altars of children; symbolizing innocence and purity.  Cempasuchil, orange marigolds, are another popular choice.   These flowers are native to Mexico and were used by the Aztecs during funeral ceremonies.  Other popular flowers include cockscombs, hoary stock, chrysanthemums, and gladiolas.  Copal incense is burned, providing another sweet fragrance, and candles illuminate the way.

Papel picado, or chiseled paper, is a folk art that originated in the town of Puebla.  Artists used papel de China (tissue paper) to create paper ornaments, lamp shades, and other artworks.  By the 1920’s, artisans were displaying and distributing paper flags they made by “chiseling” designs on the tissue paper.  Papel picado is used for numerous special occasions today, including Día de Muertos.  Ofrendas include papel picado flags decorated with Catrinas, skeletons, and other religious icons.

 

Families often include water (to quench the thirst of the soul after its long journey), salt (it acts as a purifier), personal items of the deceased (tools, books, cigarettes), crosses, statues of La Virgin de Guadalupe and other patron saints, and decorations like incense burners, figurines of skeletons or skulls, and candy skulls made of sugar or chocolate.  These items personalize the altar for the person being remembered and help each soul feel welcomed and calm.

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Ofrenda in honor of Frida Kahlo, designed by students at Secundaria de La Manga

In the early evening hours, preceding the midnight return, foods (served only on very special occasions due to cost) and drinks are added to the offrendas.  Turkey with mole sauce, tamales, tortillas, hot chocolate, tequila, fruits, and pan de muerto, a sweet bread baked as an offering to the dead, are arranged on the altars.  The soul’s journey from heaven is long, and the food and drink provide nourishment upon its arrival.  After the soul has enjoyed the “essence” of the meal, family members share the treats.  Sometimes entire communities come together to share and celebrate together.

November 2 is spent at the cemetery.  The majority in Mexico are public, meaning there are no caretakers to maintain the grounds and keep the areas tidy.  Families gather to clean the gravesite by pulling weeds, planting flowers, and cutting back grasses.  After the hard work is over, they enjoy a picnic style meal together, often to the music of mariachi bands.

Cemeteries and death are not seen as scary, dark, or creepy.  The bright colors, loud music, pleasing smells, and delicious food evoke feelings of happiness, love and togetherness.  Día de Muertos is my very favorite of all Mexican celebrations for this reason.  I can not help but be filled with excitement over the idea of a bonus visit from my grandparents and father-in-law.

And in true “teacher fashion” I have gone on much too long.  Surely, it is time for “recess”.  Or a shot of that tequila sitting on the altar!

Author: acstrine

Amy is a former elementary school teacher, currently living "Over the Border" with her husband. She loves reading, traveling, and learning through new experiences. While she would be incredibly flattered if you choose to share her articles, she asks that her name is kindly included as the author.  

4 thoughts on “Offerings of Love”

  1. This is such a wonderful tradition.. I only learned of this two years ago when I vacationed in Mexico. I purchased some small figurines that represent this tradition and love them. It was nice to get a better understanding of this holiday.. thanks.

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