El Dia de Los Muertos is actually a two-day event that is today and tomorrow. It is a Mexican tradition that is very old. It has its roots in Aztec, Olmec and Mayan lore and is colored with Catholicism. Though it may look a bit like Halloween with skeletons, skulls and the bright orange marigolds that adorn the homes of its celebrants, it has very little in common with it except the date. My husband (who is from Mexico) tells me that there was a tradition in his village that might appear even like “trick or treating” from the outside, but it was really a solemn occasion. It was called Los Rosarios. The organizers of the town would get together and begin a procession where they would stop at each house and recite Rosarios. They would be given food and treats. At the end of the evening, the food and treats would be divided among those who participated. (It sounded not unlike Halloween but with a religious twist.) He said somewhere around 1978 the tradition came to an end when a new priest in town put a stop to it saying that it was an old fashioned tradition that was pagan.
Perhaps reciting Rosaries is not what the priest took exception with or even that it coincides with All Souls Day, but the beliefs and other traditions surrounding the celebration that began thousands of years before in Pre Columbian times. Believers contend that during the two day celebration, it is easier for the souls of departed loved ones to communicate with the living. Ofrendas which are like altars, are prepared in homes and sometimes at grave sites. Throughout Mexico, even public buildings including schools and government offices will have them (without the religious symbols) as it is intended to honor their rich heritage. Ofrendas are usually decorated with pictures of the loved ones, flowers (orange marigolds called "cempasúchitl"), and food and drink that the deceased were fond of. It is sort of like Memorial Day with a twist of humor and colorful decorations. It is not a time of sadness. It is a celebration of life.
In the City of Santa Maria where we live on the Central Coast of California, our population is predominantly Mexican. As I sit here writing this, it is Halloween and the ‘trick or treators’ have just about depleted our candy supply. From my upstairs balcony the loud and riotous Banda music is blaring as someone is throwing a party. The party goers are not wearing costumes, but the home is decorated with calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls) and bright decorations. Every once in awhile a bright light flashes followed by a loud pop of an illegal firework display somewhere in the town. The excitement is contagious. The music is an acquired taste.
The following are pictures of ofrendas that were created in our mall by many local families and the local high schools participating in a club that celebrates Mexican heritage and traditions: