El Dia de Los Muertos at FES

You may have noticed the ofrenda (altar) in Sage Lounge for El Dia de Muertos, (or El Dia de los Muertos) the Day of the Dead. EQUID students invite the FES community to share in this tradition.

During El Dia de Muertos (October 31st- November 2nd) it is said that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thin. Death is honored as a part of life, and the holiday is seen as a joyous opportunity to be reunited with those who have passed on.

During our formal opening of the altar on November 2nd, staff and students brought the names and memories of loved ones into the space, verbally, tacitly, or with small items placed on the altar. One FESer shared that usually she is with her family during this holiday, and was really missing the chance to reconnect with a deceased family member. Another was accustomed to setting up an altar at home in California, and is therefore happy to have the community altar at Yale.

The altar is sacred, but it is also festive and inviting. The bright marigolds and mums are there to guide the dead back to the earth with their color and fragrance. The multicolored Papel picado represents the element wind and depicts holiday scenes or words. Citrus and pan muerte (baked especially for the occasion!) adorn our altar, along with some certain foods that loved ones enjoyed. Sugar skulls and decorated sugar cookies remind us that life is sweet even though death is certain. Candles are there to represent hope and to light the way of the dead. Water and salt are provided for the journey. A chunk of sacred copal (tree resin, foresters) is there to make sure the area is full of good energy. Additional objects including oak leaves and horse chestnuts add a local element.

Today El Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated all over Mexico, in many places in the United States, and with variations around the world. In some places, huge community altars are made, special food is prepared, and ceremonial dancing lasts all night long. Or, as some FESers from Brazil and the Dominican Republic have noted for example, the tradition is simply to visit the graves of those departed, without the traditions of making food etc.

El Dia de los Muertos has a complex multifaceted history, and continues to be transformed, but here is a brief background: The holiday has its roots in Meso-American culture reaching back perhaps 3,000 years to the one month long Aztec celebration of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead.  At the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the Spanish Missionaries syncretized the Meso-American holiday into the Catholic holidays of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.

Going back 2,000 years ago, in what is now the UK and Northern France, the Celts marked the end of summer with the celebration of Samhain.  Samhain was (and is) a holiday to give thanks for the harvest and to cleanse for the new year.  October 31st was when the souls of the dead were said to be released from the underworld. The Druid Priests and Celtic Shamans would communicate with the deceased during that time each year for guidance on the year ahead.   During the Roman conquest of the Celts, Samhain was synchronized with the Roman holiday honoring the dead, Feralia, and the day to celebrate the goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona.  Around 835 AD, Pope Boniface IV deemed October 31st All Hallows eve and November 1st All Saints day, syncretizing the Celtic-Roman traditions with Catholic traditions.  Thus, even in this simplified version, we can glimpse the intersection of religion, resistance, and tradition linking the Celts and the Aztecs in honoring the dead October 31st- November 2

We hope that in constructing the ofrenda in Sage Lounge, the FES community will have the opportunity to share in el Dia de los Muertos, in celebrating those who have passed.  The altar will be up for one week for all to enjoy and add to.