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Remember the Dead

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated in Mexico and elsewhere associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

Most of the world has heard about the Day of the Dead or seen the classic sugar skull paintings—but what does this celebration really represent? Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween.

Though related, the two annual events differ greatly in traditions and tone. One aspect is that Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones.

In our home, celebrating or observing this tradition is challenging. We are Hispanic Jews and although the holiday is laden with Catholic ritual, there is no question in my mind that when it comes to the Day of the Dead I continue to honor my Mexican heritage. As part of my Mexican heritage, I have celebrated Day of the Dead with my family since I was a child. After grieving the death of loved ones, I would have the opportunity each year to celebrate their lives with food, music, dancing, and sweets and welcome their spirits back to earth, a ritual shared by Mexicans all over the world. For Day of the Dead, families construct and decorate altars, known as ofrendas, with specific foods, gifts, flowers and photos of loved ones who they are honoring. Each item on the altar symbolizes something different, and each family and community decorates their altars in a different way. For my altar this year, I have placed photos of my deceased grandparents, great aunts and uncles, who I invited back into my home guided by the four candles to provide a lighted path back to this world. My altar includes offerings of their favorite foods and family recipes, their favorite jewelry, salt for purification, sugar skulls or calaveras for sweetness, cempasuchitl or marigolds to represent the fleeting nature of life, and festive flores de papel or paper flowers. Flores de papel as well as papel picado(paper banners) are made in an array of colors with unique designs.

Pre-COVID families would visit cemeteries where they have picnics to comfort their immediate families and the spirits of those that passed away. When they leave, families sprinkle marigold petals from the grave to their homes to show the spirits how to make their annual visit. Due to COVID, we are obtaining from this tradition this year. There is a familiar comfort in this ancient tradition connecting the departed with the living. In many Jewish homes, we have a similar tradition, yet often the connection is not made.vThe Torah clearly states we are created in the image of HaShem/G-d. “And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”Not everyone, though, believes in HaShem/G-d. Some believe in the ‘Big Bang.’ The theories are not incongruent. They are merely defined differently.

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