At least two of our local parishes — St. Willebrord in Green Bay and St. Therese in Appleton — have Dia de los Muertos celebrations.
Sr. Melanie Maczka, pastoral associate at St. Willebrord, explained that Dia de los Muertos celebrations are joyful, exactly because they are about death.
“The concept,” she said, “is that, because we believe in Jesus Christ and in the resurrection, you can laugh at death. Death should not be terrifying or make you feel hopeless.”
Central features of both parishes’ celebrations include memory altars set up in honor of those who have died, especially during the last year. This is often a household tradition as well. Altars adorned with photos of the deceased, as well as flowers — especially marigolds — candles, tissue paper cut-outs (papel picado) and food — or pictures of favorite foods and drinks, including tequila.
Alma Vazquez, who handles Hispanic religious education at St. Willebrord, said the children in the fifth grade set up a memory altar in the gathering space of church and stay after Masses to explain the items, including the cross made of salt at the base of the altar.
“The salt cross represents the crossing over of death,” Vazquez said. “The upright part represents that (the dead are) on their way to heaven.”
The food on Dia de los Muertos altars is one of the most noticeable parts of the celebration because it includes candy skulls and pan de muertos, or “bread of the dead.” This bread is often shaped and decorated like bones and scented with anise and, sometimes, orange water. It is believed that the dead find their way back home to their loved ones by the scents of the food — which is why home altars also include the favorite foods of the deceased.
What is placed on the altars — which can also include items related to hobbies — are called ofrendas, or offerings.
Carlos Herrera, who heads Hispanic ministry at St. Therese, said there will be an altar in the parish’s family room for religious education students and another in the church. That altar will remain up from Oct. 30 through the first week of November.
“For the Saturday evening Mass at 4 p.m.,” he said, “we always invite the Anglo community to come and see the altars. Then, for the first week of November, we have the celebrations on the Nov, 1 and 2 Masses.
“This November is another important month for us,” Herrera added, “because we have a retreat to explain the traditions of the Hispanic community.”
The dates of Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 are tied in the celebration, at least to its roots in Mexico. There, the Nov. 1 celebration focuses on children who have died and is called Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) and altars are often decorated with toys. However, this custom is not part of the celebrations here.
Also not common here yet, but very prevalent in Mexico and many U.S. states bordering Mexico, is that cemeteries are also sites of celebration. These include family picnics and music, with many people staying overnight at elaborately decorated family graves.
Sr. Melanie noted that the Wisconsin climate makes several Hispanic holiday customs difficult – including Our Lady of Guadalupe parades (Dec. 12).
“It’s cold,” she said. “Here, you wouldn’t want to spend a (November) day in the cemetery.”
Gina Laczko of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, interviewed by the Catholic Digest, called the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration — whether in the cemetery or the family home, “a time of reunions, of people going back to their home towns. It is a time when the adults tell the children the stories of their departed ancestors.”
The Dia de los Muertos grew from Mexico’s Aztec roots many centuries ago — some believe 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Then the celebrations took place in August and lasted for a month. The people believed that the dead had journeyed to the land of Mictlan, located to the north and ruled over by the lord and lady of the dead. When the Spanish began to settle in the region, the tradition was adapted to the beliefs of Catholicism and the celebrations moved closer to the feast of All Saints.
Sources: The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; Dictionary of Catholic Devotions; catholicdigest.com; dayofthedead.com; catholicculture.org; and the archives at www.communityofsttherese.org