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The Skiff Orientation Edition: Welcome, Class of 28!
The Skiff Orientation Edition: Welcome, Class of '28!
By Georgie London, Staff Writer
Published May 13, 2024
Advice from your fellow Frogs, explore Fort Worth, pizza reviews and more. 

Day of the Dead: Celebrating the life of loved ones

Day of the Dead: Celebrating the life of loved ones

To most people, the sight of a skeleton or skull is not exactly a friendly one. But for those who practice Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead on Nov. 1 and 2, it is one of celebration and remembrance.

Miguel Leatham, an anthropology professor who studies Mexican religion and folklore, said that it was not until recently that Americans, mostly Southwesterners, started celebrating Dia de los Muertos. With the growth of Mexican immigrants came the growth of the holiday.

But it is not just Mexicans who celebrate it. Several Central and South American countries practice it, too. And it all started thousands of years ago, Leatham said.

Long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, the Aztec empire would give sacrifices and offerings for the dead, specifically their ancestors. They would make altars in their homes and fill them with drinks and food for the dead, as well as cover them in death imagery – intricate paper work and sculptures of skeletons and skulls, usually with bright, lively colors.

“From our perspective, this may have been seen (as) morbid,” Leatham said. “From their perspective, this was actually a celebration of a fact that there is a cycle of death into life and right back into death.”

During the reign of Pope Gregory III, the church established Nov. 1 as All Saints’ Day – a day to recognize apostles, saints and martyrs – and Nov. 2 as All Souls’ Day – a day to remember and pray for those souls still in purgatory. People would attend mass, visit their loved ones’ graves or say prayers and have an elaborate feast at home with family.

When the Spanish came to the Americas and these customs combined with the Aztec tradition, Dia de los Muertos was created.

What the Spanish and Europeans had celebrated was taken to a whole new level.

Their days of respect for the dead turned into a true celebration, with feasting, dancing, decorating, visiting graves and building elaborate altars, or ofrendas, in their homes. It is believed that by leaving these offerings for the dead, the living are able to satisfy and please their ancestors. It is a way to remember the dead not just by sitting near a stone grave with their name on it, but actually having the foods they liked to eat and the music they liked to listen to and the games they liked to play.

Leatham said that eventually the holiday spread to the United States, and attracted attention because of the exotic and intricate artwork of death. Well-versed people would teach other Mexican-Americans the traditions, and so on. Leatham said sometimes people now think that Dia de Los Muertos has always been around, but in reality it has very shallow roots in the U.S.

But not only Mexican-Americans celebrate. Leatham said it is common for Anglo-Americans to learn about the holiday and embrace it as a light-hearted approach to remembering their loved ones.

“Discovering these customs, people feel like they are recovering something,” Leatham said. “Maybe they have never been close to their family and they like this tradition, whether its part of their heritage or not.”

How to set up an ofrenda:

One main aspect of Dia de Los Muertos is the ofrenda,or offering table. Mary McKinney and Karla O’Donald, instructors in the Spanish department, set up an ofrenda as a general guide to what elements are included. However, Miguel Leatham, an anthropology professor, said that ofrendas differ depending on geographical regions, class and the way a family celebrates the holiday.

1. First you place a framed picture of your loved one in the center of the table. Everything on the table will revolve around the frame.

2. Then there are the marigolds. Leatham said in the Aztec language, the word for marigold translates to “the flower of the dead.” Usually an arch of marigolds is built and the flowers are spread around the table. McKinney said the strong aroma leads the dead back to their home, like a pathway.

3. Also acting as a pathway are many candles. “It is so they can see where they are going, like leaving a light on,” McKinney said.

4. Next is the food and drinks. McKinney said that there is usually bread, or “pan,” and tamales as well as other favorite dishes and candies. “You prepare their favorite foods and drink because the belief is that they want something to eat after their long trip back,” McKinney said.

5. In addition to their favorite foods, the loved one’s favorite music and leisure activities such as games, instruments played or even cigarettes are placed on the ofrenda.

6. Last but not least are the skulls and skeletons. O’Donald said that the smiling, dancing and colorful skeletons are a way of making fun of death as well as uniting the living. “Deep down inside, underneath it all, we are all the same,” O’Donald said. “You’re bones.”

How to make your own sugar skulls:

Martha Johnson, a lecturer on Dia de los Muertos in Las Vegas, NM, said she uses this simple recipe to make sugar skulls. Johnson teaches Spanish at an elementary school and also goes around New Mexico giving seminars on Dia de los Muertos, having grown up in Mexico celebrating the holiday.

ú A skull mold

ú Meringue powder

ú Granulated sugar

ú 1-cup measuring cup

ú Large bowl

ú Water

ú Plates or cardboard squares

ú Decorations:

o Icing

o Colored foil

o Sequins

o Colored sugar

1. In a large bowl, mix together by hand 1 teaspoon of meringue powder for every cup of granulated sugar. You can use as much sugar as you want, depending on the size of the skull mold and how many skulls you want to make.

2. Add 1 teaspoon of water per cup of sugar used and mix well. When you squeeze the mixture, it should be solid enough to hold the form of your hand. If it doesn’t, sprinkle in more water.

3. Pack the mixture into the mold firmly and as tight-fitting as possible. Use a straight edge to make the back of the mold even. Place a cardboard square, plate or flat surface against the mold and turn the mold onto it. Lift the mold; if it isn’t satisfactory, just throw it back into the bowl and restart.

4. Let the skull air-dry for at least 8 hours. Then decorate as you please.

Karla O’Donald, an instructor in the Spanish department, said it is typical to have a sugar skull for the deceased, but also a mini skull with your own name on it, especially for kids. She said on Dia de Los Muertos, the kids will break the skull and eat it as a symbolic way of cheating death.

More Day of the Dead activities

What: “Turkey Until Death” theater performance

Who: Teatro Flor Candela

When: Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.

Where: Brown-Lupton University Union Auditorium

Cost: Free

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