Dia De Los Muertos: North American Style, Dinner with the Dead

day of the dead altar with sugar skulls

For a couple of decades or more, I’ve celebrated my own version of Dia de los Muertos on Halloween. For a long time, I was really quiet, almost secretive about it. I am a really, really white girl descended from Eastern European stock with probably nary a Celtic or Asian gene in me, let alone anything from a culture as vibrant and living as Aztec, Mayan, or any of the other Central and South American cultures. Plus, I live in North America centuries after my ancestors stopped paying heed (and respect) to those who came before them. The Romans and the Christians wiped out my people’s native systems long ago, replacing them with a strong fear of death and a sad neglect for what I’d consider to be basic and proper care for our ancestors and dead loved ones.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own version of how to care for my ancestors by borrowing from vibrant traditions, like the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, and making alterations to fit my heritage and lifestyle. I talk to my ancestors often all year round, of course, but once a year I go all-out to make space for them to come, visit this world, and enjoy some of the experiences of life as we live it today. This I call Dinner with the Dead, even though it’s become so much more.

I began simply, with dinner on Halloween night. The first few years, I set a place at my table for my ancestors. It was most often me and them, two place settings, two meals, one short prayer of gratitude and thanks, maybe a candle between us.

Expansion of My Tradition

A good ten years in, I expanded to include a simple altar for my ancestors with candles, incense, flowers, maybe trinkets or other items that seemed right at the time. Eventually, that simple altar became more akin to the kind you see in Mexico, with an altar cloth, cavaleras, Mexican-style skeleton statues, flowers and herbs of various kinds and offerings.

day of the deadNow, I set up my altar on Halloween day. I cook foods I know my ancestors will love, like pork roast with home fermented sauerkraut and caraway or pirogi, beet salad or borscht, and sweets of all kinds. I pour blackberry brandy for my grandfather-in-law and beer for my grandpa and Babcia, coffee for several relations, matcha tea (more because I want them to love it, actually), wines, sodas, and any other drinks they request. I include seed for Kikko’s ancestors, fresh fruits for Arthur’s ancestors, and tasty turkey nibbles next to a chew for Jasper’s ancestors. It’s a colorful array of tastes, smells, and textures that changes from year to year.

At sunset, we gather around the fire to welcome our visitors with love and gratitude for each of them. Most years, I keep the start simple. A few of my ancestors stop by only briefly before heading off to visit other loved ones across the country. I don’t want to keep them any longer than need be because I know how much they long to be with other members of our family for the 24 hour window they have here.

Once the fire’s lit and the Ancestors have arrived, we aim to have supper and enjoy Halloween night. Often, that means candy and scary movies with my man and those ancestors who’d like to stay. Sometimes, it includes friends, a bonfire, and lots of laughter. I usually go to bed exhausted, dream of hanging out with my ancestors, then awake kinda tired.

We spend the first day of November together, too. Most often, I clear my schedule and spend my day doing fun stuff, like getting a massage or mushrooming or visiting the ocean. Occasionally, work or family life will demand my attention, and I invite my ancestors to be with me as I attend to the business of living in this day and age. At sunset, we gather about the altar, say prayers of gratitude and joy, then send our ancestors back home by extinguishing the fire. My altar is always disassembled and put away before the sun rises again.

Creating a Healthy Relationship with Death and the Dead

In my culture, that of North America, we’re afraid to face death. We scare ourselves with stories of ghosts, angels and demons, Hell and Purgatory on one hand and on the other deny the existence of an afterlife because it’s not scientifically proven. We’re kinda confused, so far as I can tell.

img_2007My connection to my ancestors is deeply nourishing to my body, mind, and soul. When my son was young, I wanted to pass on to him what I know about the land of the Dead, how to connect with our departed loved ones in a healthy and safe way, and how to deepen his love of this life through appreciating that which comes next. My own traditions grew in part from my own drive to strengthen and honor my connections and in part from my desire to give him something tangible to create his own connections.

When it comes down to it, the rituals we create and use, our traditions, are merely tangible tools that make it easier to realize the truth beyond the material stuff of this world. Dinner with the Dead is a way to manifest the love and care I feel for those souls who made lives here before me, who created the world I now live in, and who paved the way for my family to live the life we’ve been granted. It doesn’t really matter so much if my rituals match the ones my ancestors used. They taught me that. It also doesn’t matter if my traditions borrow from cultures other than my own. The Ancestors brought me that wisdom, too. What matters is that I think to do something, hold intentions of love and care, and take action as best I can.

How to Get Started

If you want to strengthen your connection to your ancestors, start small and follow your heart. Declare that you want to connect with your ancestors in their highest forms. Choose one ancestor you can remember or with whom you have a connection and reach out. Imagine offering him or her a small gift or a hug. Share a cup of coffee, tea, a pint of ale, whatever your ancestor might like or maybe offer him or her a meal with you.

halloween altarIf, like I did, you’re starting off before the relatives you grew up with have passed and thus don’t have a specific individual in mind, just imagine one or more older folk who could have been your ancestors. Let them show you their faces or be content to let them remain unfocused, like a warm presence.

Herbs I often draw upon for my altar and to strengthen a healthy connection with my ancestors include Calendula or Marigold. Both are traditionally connected with Light, Prosperity, and Respect for the Ancestors. Marigold, I suspect, is the one more Mexican families have used, but Calendula has a strong enough tradition through out India to make it a most excellent choice, too. I like to include Sage and Rosemary for their clearing and enlightening energies as well. Roses are a particular favorite of my Babcia, so I seek the best blossom for her. Rose has a strong connection with healthy heart energy, love, and appropriate boundaries in many sorts of caring relationships. That makes Rose a good choice for an altar for the Ancestors. Chili, Cinnamon, Clove, Garlic, Ginger, and other Spicy friends can help give your work and your ancestors a boost of energy. The fire contained in so many of our favorite spices is often used in magical workings to heat things up just as we use them to boost our digestion. That makes them a potentially good choice to share with your ancestors, too, especially if your ancestors loved a little heat themselves!

Look to the traditional foods and medicines of your ancestors, too. Was garlic or horseradish a part of your ancestral diet? Did your grandparents add nutmeg and allspice to everything? Did fresh parsley or cilantro grow (or likely grow) in the gardens of your great-great aunt? I was lucky to have a strong connection to many of my elders when I was quite young, so I at least have an idea of what they specifically grew and cooked with even though my connection to their culture is nearly nil.  If you’re not sure, start with the plants you most adore and expand from there using your best guess. After your first Dinner with the Dead, you’ll likely start to feel a little more inspiration.

Let your connection and your rituals or traditions grow at their own pace. There’s no rush, your ancestors aren’t going anywhere, after all. They’ll guide you, as will inspiration. As your connection deepens, so too will your traditions. One day, you’ll finish celebrating your own Dinner with the Dead and realize that you’ve created a full-blown holiday tradition over the span of a couple of decades. You’ll smile at how quickly the time went by, and hopefully you’ll pass on your wisdom so others can reclaim their connection to their ancestors as well. May you be as blessed with love and support from your Ancestors in their highest forms as I have been, and may your connection one day be as strong, vital, and life-giving as has mine, too.

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