What is it like for a child to celebrate the Day of the Dead?

This is the story of a young boy and his grandmother preparing to celebrate El Dia de Muertos.

 

I hold close to my heart and soul those good old days of November when I was a child and would help my abuelita, my grandmother, celebrate our loved ones who had passed away.

Are we there yet? Beginning in October I would ask every single day:

– “Abuelita, when will we go to the market to buy the papel picado“(paper with cut-out figures)?

– “Abuelita, how many days until we go to the cemetery?

– “When are you going to get the table ready for the altar offering?”

And she would patiently respond, “Very soon, mi niño, but remember that first, we have to clean the house really well for their visit. They’re our most important visitors and we have to welcome them home as they  deserve!

I really liked those afternoons when, after school, we would go to the market to buy everything we needed for the holiday, plus some candy for me.

By that time the market would be packed with all we needed for the Day of the Dead. I remember that there were huge flower stands so full of color. The brightest was the cempasuchitl, that orange marigold that is only sold during this time of year.

There were stands for everything we would need for the Day of the Dead  – candles, black ceramic candleholders, and the fruit of the season: squash, sugar cane, and bananas.

All the bakeries prepare Pan de Muerto, the day of the dead bread, as  well as other special types of bread as offerings; for example, the golletes, a pink doughnut-type of bread, which symbolizes the cycle of life and death.  During  October we can enjoy Day of the Dead bread almost every day!

Get ready, mi niño,” my grandma would tell me, “Today we have to get up early and  buy everything we need.”

Yay!!! October 31 had finally arrived, the eve of the big celebration.

First I would help her move the sofas and tables from the living room to get the big table ready. We would cover the table with a white tablecloth, my grandma’s favorite.

This one, niño, I embroidered it when I was 16 years old,  a few years before I married your abuelo, your grandfather,” she told me.

I obviously preferred decorating the table with the brightly colored papel picado and the calaveras, sugar skulls, which always made me laugh.  They’re not scary at all, and you can eat them.

Once the tablecloth and papel picado were ready, we would carefully place the little toys for the angelitos – that’s what we called our relatives who died when they were children.

This little doll was your tia Margarita’s favorite,” my grandma would remember as she hung the old doll above the altar.

One by one, we would take my ancestors’ treasured belongings out of the big old box.

Each one would remind us of a family story.  Taking out all those things out of that box was like opening a treasure chest. My abuelita had a story for every single thing we took out.

We would place the candles that we’d bought in the market one by one on the altar: one for grandpa, another big one for Mother, another for Aunt Margarita…My grandma said that their light would guide their souls to our house, and each one had his or her own candle because there was something special to remember about each one of them.

Grandma, I’ll place Baby Jesus and Mary,” I would say as she held the bench so that I could climb up to put them in their places at the highest part of the offering. Then we would put cempasuchitl flowers and some sugar calaveras, the kind that has the name of the deceased on their forehead.

We would also take out our family pictures of our dearly departed and hang them on the altar. Oh! I couldn’t forget the glass of water and the little plate of salt…they say it’s to relieve the thirst of the souls that return.

The rest of the day my grandma would spend in the kitchen preparing our lost loved one’s favorite dishes.

Meanwhile, I took the petals off the cempasuchitl flowers to make a path to the offerings. In the afternoon, the house would be filled with the aroma of the food grandma had prepared: mole with chicken, red rice, and little squash, calabazas.

When I was younger I used to think that food would really be eaten, but then they explained to me that it was just so that the souls could enjoy the delicious smell.  We, the living, were the ones who would eat all this wonderful food.

When everything was ready, we would go to the cemetery with more candles and flowers to wait there for the souls. To call them, the church bells would ring all night.

How time flies!

Today I prepare an offering with my kids and I see in them the same excitement I felt as a child. Today I light a candle in honor of my grandma and I know that, even if only for a few moments, we’ll be together again.