In A Hidden Fire, one of the first social interactions the two main characters, Giovanni and Beatrice, have is a community center celebration of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Originating in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd that blends indigenous Native American traditions with the Roman Catholic celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
The meaning behind this unique celebration is that the dead should not be mourned, but celebrated, and that by honoring their souls through gifts and decorations, the souls will “meet” the living and hear their prayers. Humor and celebration is encouraged and the day has become the equivalent of a national holiday in Mexico. Often dancing, singing, poetry and art are part of family or community celebrations.
While traditions vary in different communities, most include an altar set up either in home or local cemeteries and decorated with pictures of loved ones, along with marigolds, toys for children, and favorite foods and drinks of the deceased, which are then eaten by friends and family after the celebration.
The most common symbol of Dia de los Muertos is the calaca, which is a decorated skull or skeleton that can be traced back to Aztec traditions and imagery. Dia de los Muertos altars are often decorated with chocolate or sugar skulls, and celebrants will wear skull masks or costumes. Carved and decorated skeletons are a common motif in artwork celebrating the dead and are made all year round.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated in many places around the world, including Latin America, Asia, and parts of Oceania. Because of the large and vital Mexican-American population in the United States, Dia de los Muertos parties can be found over much of the American Southwest and in many major cities.
One of the largest parties in my neck of the wood, Southern California, takes place on October 22nd at the historic Hollywood Forever cemetery. Graves are decorated and there are dances and concerts, processions and poems; rituals from around the world can be seen. In Houston, Texas, where A Hidden Fire is set, Lawndale Art Center in the Museum District observes an art exhibition and community altar through the end of October and beginning of November.
If you’re curious about this fascinating holiday, check out what Dia de los Muertos celebrations might be happening in your community. It’s also a great idea if you want to give your Halloween party a different and beautiful twist!