Death, the great equalizer, whether you’re rich or poor, it does not discriminate. While death is often associated with sadness, El Día de los Muertos or La Toussant is a comforting prospect for grieving loved ones.
Celebrating the lives of people who have died is something that is deeply ingrained in Black and Latino culture. “African American funerals tend to be life-affirming and to have a celebratory air intermingled with the sorrow,” said author Karen H. Meyers.
However, celebrants of El Día de los Muertos upped the ante by coming together annually to honor the lives of loved ones who have passed away.
Indeed, it is a common belief that the dead partake of the food in spirit which the living eat later. The bread of the dead is a popular cuisine during this time.
The ancestors are also remembered with ofrendas or small personal altars in houses and at cemeteries. Often, they are decorated with marigold flowers. Because of their potent smell, it is thought to guide the spirit back to the land of the living. On El Día de los Muertos, the dead awaken from their eternal sleep to carouse with their relatives.
Symbols of the holiday include skeletons and skulls which are often depicted in fancy clothes and entertaining poses. Papel picado is also a prominent decoration that adorns Mexican streets during this time.
A look back
A tradition originating in Mexico, El Día de los Muertos came into existence over 3,000 years ago. Initially, the holiday was celebrated in August by the Aztecs, who believed that the dead had to travel through nine layers of the underworld. They were ushered in carrying the possessions they were buried with.
According to the Aztec myth, the underworld is run by Mictlan Tikutti the lord and lady of death. To this day, she plays a large role in the occasion, defending the bones of the dead and swallowing the stars during the day.
When the Spanish arrived and overthrew Mexico in 1519, the holiday was moved from August to November in order to correspond with the Catholics’ All Saints Day. All Saints’ Day is also known as All Hallow’s Day or the day before Halloween, which coincidentally observes the dead coming back to life. Comparably, it is celebrated by eating sugar filled snacks such as frutta martorana and ossa dei morti.
In southwestern Louisiana, the holiday of La Toussant carries folk traditions in the modest-sized town of St. Martinville. There, relatives whitewash and clean the tombstones and prepare garlands, wreaths and crosses to decorate them.
La Toussant, also known as The Solemnity of the Saints, like El Día, takes place on November 1 and 2, aligning itself with the Catholic holiday, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but it performs customs and rites of local Blacks, known as Creoles and the latter group, Cajuns, who are whites that migrated to the area from French Canada in 1785.
| Read: Post-Halloween celebrations in Indigenous cultures honor ancestors: El Dia de los Muertos, La Toussant and Fete Gede
“The day after Halloween . . . is more important in south Louisiana than any other area of the country both as a Catholic holy day of obligation and as a family of unity,” writes Jane Vidrine in her article on traditions and folk life in Louisiana.
In the afternoon of All Saints Day, priests bless the graves and recite the Rosary and a candle is lit for each member of the deceased. In both Louisiana and Mexico large amounts of candles in cemeteries are also used on All Saints’ Night. On All Souls’ Day, mass is usually offered at the cemetery.
Things have certainly changed since the Aztecs kicked things off 3,000 years ago. Aside from the technological advances many celebrations, workshops, ceremonies and community affairs have been made available online due to COVID-19.
Be that as it may, if you want to get back to some sense of normalcy with face to face contact, there are plenty of outdoor El Día de los Muertos events.
“There are many people who you can strike up a conversation with who will chat with you about their loved ones,” said registered nurse Leo Ramirez. “For others, the grief is still very real, but you can tell being at this event is most comforting for them.”
Whatever way you decide to engage, participating in this holiday creates a tangible means for healing from loss, and preserving family stories and legacies.
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