This tradition comes from the Aztec, who had this festivity to honor belated family and friends. It is believed that the souls of the departed are allowed to come and spend one whole day with their loved ones.
People go to the cemetery and adorn the graves with flowers, candles, the favorite food of their dead relative and pictures. In the case of children, they also bring their favorite toys. This is called the "ofrenda", the offering. Many, like me, don't go to the cemetery but make their ofrendas at home.
When I started with this tradition, I didn't really have any dead to honor so I asked Grandmother Dragon to "lend" me some dead. Happily, she helped me to put the offering for her ancestors.
Eventually, I learned what was to say good bye to those dear and close to my own heart. It was then that the Day of the Dead took a new meaning for me. My adored grandparents, some very good friends and pets I've loved as my children have all a burning candle on this day.
I look forward for the Day of the Dead as someone else would do for a very special party. Deep in my heart, I believe my beloved ones do come back to the cave to say hello and check on me and Mother Dragon. I prepare my offering so when they come, they see I have not forgotten them. This is their night and I welcome them with a smile, a prayer and my offering.
The traditional alter has a lot of symbolism. It combines Aztec and Catholic beliefs (from the Conquest), as it happened with many other old traditions. The biggest sugar skull represents the Giver of Life. The four candles are meant to lit the four cardinal points, so the dead relatives can find their way home. Three smaller sugar skulls represent the Holy Trinity. Copal (incense) is burnt to purify the house, clear the path for the relatives' souls and chase the evil spirits away.
There is also papel picado (bright colored tissue paper with cut out designs). There are three important colors. Purple for pain, pink for celebration and white for hope. There is also Pan de Muerto, which is plain round sweet bread sprinkled with sugar and a crisscrossed bone shape lay on top.
November 1st is to honor the children's souls. November 2nd is for the grown ups. It is supposed that the souls start arriving at 8pm of November 2 and leave at dawn of November 3.
I lit all candles at 8pm and stay there for a while. I make sure the bread is nicely arranged, the toys are complete, the flowers are plenty and the food is ready.
I cannot forget Grandmother's coffee and grandfather's favorite sweet bread. White roses for my dear friend, almonds for my parrot son who must come on my grandma's shoulder. Plenty of dog awards for my several loyal friends who escort my grandparents and friends on their visit.
At dawn they will be gone and the cave will be unusually cold until noon. The feast will be over, but I will be looking forward for the next Day of the Dead. The one day the souls of our beloved ones are allowed to spend with us. The Aztec believed this, and so do I. This is, by all means, my favorite Mexican tradition.
In loving memory of:
Alfonso Diaz, Father Dragon "The Great"
Ma. Luisa Diaz, Grandmother Dragon,
my adopted grandparents, my adopted sister,
my dear friends and all my furry and feathery babies.
You live in my heart, always.
Today, Father Dragon lights a candle for your dead loved ones too.