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Noche de las Calaveras - A Street feast celebrating day of the dead

What is Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)?

The Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) tradition extends throughout Latin America, but is most closely identified with Mexico. The native peoples believed that upon death, the individual's soul did not die, that they continued to live on in Mictlan, a place of rest. In time, this pre-Hispanic celebration merged with the Catholic celebration of All Soul's Day and has evolved into the present-day Día de los Muertos celebration.

Today, death is perceived as a transition from one life to another and the Día de los Muertos celebration is a time of communication between the living and the deceased. It is believed that the soul of the dead would visit the home where he or she resided. It is a happy, colorful celebration where the death is honored and the deceased are remembered and are enticed back to celebrate the joys of life.

Throughout Mexico, altars called las ofrendas (“offerings”) are set up in homes to welcome home the souls of the dead. Home altars are decorated with marigolds (the flower of the dead); favorite dishes such as tamales, tortillas, pumpkin and mole; candles; incense (copal); toys and other enticements; and objects of personal use. In some instances, a path of flower petals directs the souls to their home altars.

Offerings, representations and their meanings:

The ofrendas represent a remembrance of the departed, a reminder that life is eternal and that presence of the deceased loved one is everlasting. The ofrendas speak of affection toward the deceased and are an expression of love towards life.

Altars are traditionally built on October 30th and 31st and are taken down November 2nd. It is believed that the souls of the children return first, so altars laden with their favorite foods and toys are set out on October 31st. On November 1st, the souls of deceased adults arrive, and in anticipation for their return the more spicy foods are set out along with other earthly delights such as fruits, nuts, chocolate, and liquor. Since the souls can only delight themselves with the aromas of these offering, the foods, flowers and incense are spicy and aromatic. A feast is enjoyed later by friends and family.

In celebration of the Día de los Muertos tradition that extends throughout Mexico and reaches into the Sonoran Desert region, the Desert Museum has created a traditional Día de los Muertos altar. In Mexico, each village's celebrations and altars for Día de los Muertos are different, based upon their own unique traditions. Here at the Museum, we want to honor the traditional Día de los Muertos themes while making them unique to our organization and our history.

Our theme this year will be to commemorate the animals, and plants that make the Museum and the Sonoran Desert such a special place. Help us decorate the altar dedicated to the monarch butterfly, whose arrival in central Mexico each winter has long been associated with the returning souls of the departed. Museum departments have participated by contributing photographs and other remembrances to our community altar. Offerings include remembrances of animals that are now deceased but were once part of the Desert Museum collection and endangered or extinct animals, and plants of the Sonoran Desert region.

The altar will be displayed to the public and will be available for those departed from us for earthly visitation beginning Friday, September 29th through Monday, November 6th. In addition to our offerings, the altar also features traditional Día de los Muertos offerings - marigolds, candles, papel picado, sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), the Virgin of Guadalupe (Mexico's patroness), and other symbolic offerings

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