Inspired by my friend Nina’s beautiful altar that she and her family and friends create every year for the feast of St. Joseph, for the past seven years or so we have been celebrating Día de Muertos with an ofrenda that we set up on our front porch. Placing the ofrenda on the porch over Halloween makes for a wonderful hybrid bridge between American Halloween and the Mexican tradition of honoring the souls of lost loved ones. On Halloween night our porch has become a gathering place where we so very much look forward to seeing our neighborhood friends each year.
Cemetery Macheros, Mexico
The Mexican festivities of Día de Muertos typically begins the night of October 31st, with families sitting vigil at grave sites. Mexican tradition holds that on November 1st and 2nd, the dead awaken to reconnect and celebrate with their living family and friends; on the 1st to honor the souls of children and on the 2nd, to honor adults. The ofrenda, or “offering to the dead,” is a sacred Mexican tradition where those who have passed away are honored by the living.
In late October millions of Monarchs begin to arrive to the magnificent oyamel fir and pine tree forests of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, located in the heart of Mexico in the eastern regions of Michoacán and western edge of Estado de México. Their return coincides with the annual celebration of Día de Muertos. In Mexican folklore, butterflies represent the souls of departed loved ones, returning to Earth to be remembered by their ancestors. An even older tradition connects the Monarchs with the corn harvest, as their return signified that the corn was ripe. In the language of the native Purpécha Indians, the name for the Monarch is “harvester.”
Oyamel fir tree (Abies religiosa) with Monarchs Cerro Pelon, Mexico
The Day of the Dead finds its roots in the native people of central and southern Mexico. The Aztecs recognized many gods, including a goddess of death and the underworld named Mictecacihuatl.
Mictecacihuatl was linked to both death and resurrection. According to one myth, Mictecacihuatl and her husband collected bones so that they might be returned to the land of the living and restored by the gods. Just as did the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs appeased the underworld gods by burying their dead with food and precious objects.
Día de Muertos is a celebration blending both indigenous people’s cultural beliefs and observances held by Spanish Catholics. The conquerors found it difficult to convince native peoples to give up their rituals honoring the goddess of death Mictecihuatl. The compromise was to move these indigenous festivities from late July to early November to correspond with the three-day Christian observance of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
This year I have been thinking about Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, Op. 40, which is based on the French legend that Death packs a fiddle and comes to play at midnight on Halloween, causing the skeletons in the cemetery to crawl out of the ground for their annual graveyard dance party.
Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre comes from an even older concept, the medieval allegory of the all conquering and equalizing power of death, which was expressed in poetry, music, the visual arts, and drama in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages.
Marigold flowers (Tagetes erecta), known as cempazúchitl or flor de muerto are placed on graves and ofrendas. The cempazúchitl are believed to lure souls back from the dead with their vibrant colors and lovely citrus, musky fragrance
Marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) and Painted Lady butterfly
Ribbons of orange and black butterflies are stopping to roost overnight all along the Gulf Coast of Florida’s Panhandle. These Monarchs are primarily members of the Atlantic Coast population. Because these Monarchs live for about seven to eight months, they are often referred to as a super generation of Monarchs, and are also known as the Methuselah Monarchs. They will continue along the Gulf Coast, soon joining the steady stream of Monarchs migrating through the central part of the US to cross the great Central Mexican Plateau (Altiplanicie Mexicana).
The Plateau is bordered by the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the East. The Plateau ends where the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Mountains begin, forming a natural barrier, which prohibits further migration. The butterflies roost in the beautiful pine-oak forests of the Eje Volcanico Transversal.
The Atlantic Coast Super Generation of Monarchs, otherwise known as Methuselah Monarchs, Gloucester 2019
Monarch Butterfly overnight roost Gloucester 2019
The Monarchs are arriving to Mexico in ever increasing numbers. Colonies have yet to form, but that is not unusual for this time of year. Below are reports from Mexico from two of the butterfly sanctuaries where I filmed “Beauty on the Wing.” Ellen Sharp, along with her husband Joel Moreno Rojas, founded the nonprofit organization Butterflies and Their People, located at Cerro Pelón, Macheros. Estela Romero is Journey North’s program coordinator for Mexico and writes from her home in Angangueo, Michoacán.
From Macheros, MEX:
Ellen submitted this report: “From 1:08–1:24 pm on October 31, 2019 we spotted at least 54 determined little specks pumping their way across the sky. Meanwhile up on the Carditos side of, the Butterflies & Their People guardians sighted many more. Starting at 12:16 pm, Leonel and Francisco counted an average of eight per minute for the next ten minutes. Ever since that day, the skies have been filled with monarchs flying overhead until the afternoon rains arrive. We have yet to hear any news of colony formation on Cerro Pelon.” (10/31/2019)
Ellen and Joel, co-founders of Butterflies and Their People, also co-own JM Monarch Butterfly B and B, located in Macheros.
Gravesite Macheros, Mexico
From Angangueo, MEX
Here They Come!
Estela Romero writes:
Our dear friends,
Regardless of bad weather with rain, fog and dark clouds covering the sky for almost three weeks, Monarchs found no obstacle and poured down from the sky to attend to their ancestral encounter with incredible accuracy on the October 31st and November 1st.
“There they come”, “down to the bottom to town those go”, “up they just lifted flight”, “over there many more”, students, Emilio, Fernanda, Kevin and Diana, shouted. The monarchs were migrating through the valley. Monarchs do their triumphal entrance and last flying performance before they make their choice and split to their final destination at the unique Oyamel tree spots in the Sierra Madre mountains of “El Rosario” and “Sierra Chincua”, in Central México, two of the three main Sanctuaries at the region.
Monitoring map kept by students shows how the numbers of monarchs suddenly rose to hundreds!
Our legendary Mathusalen Generation of Monarchs, the Daughters of the Sun, have been, since ancestral times, the symbol of the after-life world of our ancestors and recently dead close relatives — the Miktlan dimension. Our indigenous groups show deep understanding of the relationship between life and death. Monarchs are the connection of this mystic relationship between life and death.
“At last their souls appear shaped as orange and black beautiful energetic butterflies coming to all of us families, after longing for their arrival all year long; our memories will always prevail upon their absence; they will always be among us; not invoking their lives and our time together would be really letting them die and forgotten, no, never”, murmur parents and grandpas as they hod their children and grandchildren by their hands in the streets of the town.
“We all gather around our Ofrendas at home and even in public open sites. Each ofrenda may have from 2 levels, which represent heaven and earth, up to 7 or even 9 levels, each one a different dimension that the soul of our dead ones (the Tonali) will go through before reaching the Miktlan dimension”, explained elementary school teacher, Margarita. The Ofrenda is a collection of objects placed on a ritual display during the annual and traditionally Mexican Día de Muertos celebration.
“Each Ofrenda shall contain all favorite meals, drinks, objects, garments, and tools or utensils symbolizing our ancestor’s lives, preferences, enjoyment and ordinary living”, Víctor, Pamela and Juan explained as they gave their finishing touches to their beautiful Ofrenda.
“The colorful papel picado is exclusively sold at this time of the year for the decoration of our Ofrendas; the Zempatzúchitl flower’s (Marygold) fragance shall guide the spirits of our ancestors to reach home; candle lights meaning light, hope and faith, shall also help them come home and then go back to their Miktlan world; our moms and grandma’s assisted by the rest of the family shall cook our dead ones’ favorite dishes in advance for this day; salt and water are main components of an Ofrenda, meaning relieve to thirst and hunger to the visiting spirits; all kinds of drinks, fruit and our delicious “Pan de Muerto“ shall be included too. Tortillas, tamales, atole, tequila,mezcal andcerveza are indispensable in any Ofrenda; finally, at the very top, the photo or photos of our dead relative(s) to whom honor the Ofrenda has been set”,explained Ceciia, a middle school student, wearing her beautiful Catrina costume.
The Alebrijes also symbolize the Day of the Dead. The Alebrijes are bright, colorful, fantasy cardboard cutouts of creatures which are mixtures two or more animal body. The Alebrijes is part of our Mexican culture which has hit the international screen in films like Coco. TheAlebrije’s role is to guide the spirits of our dead ones to earth and back to the Miktlan underworld once their two-day visit is over.
“Our ancestors spirits shall share with us a big, big fest while we sing their favorite songs, play their favorite music, tell unforgettable anecdotes and memories and fill our homes with colour, flavors and joy to know that they shall be always among us and never gone from home and from our families”, teacher, Nacho, explained as he described the Ofrenda to the dead miners in town. Nacho is featured in the photo and shows how our town, Angangueo, was historically a mining town with mining the main employment for most families many decades ago.
Walo, a teacher who dressed up as Catrín, and Catrina Magali showed two different Ofrendas to our Monarch butterflies, souls of our dead ones, as the main symbol of these unique festivities in our region and all over our country as the ever living spirits of our dead ones.
As the festivals and the celebratory meals are over and our cemetery is dressed up to greet the monarchs as our ancestors, lets turn down our voices and let us be still and silent as we wait to see at least one single Mathusalen Monarch arrive; let us all children and families from our three host countries, Canada, United States and México stand hand-in-hand while sharing our wonderful responsibility and our ancestral, unbreakable link among our three nations, while watching great-great-grandchildren Monarch pouring down as if from the heavens to our majestic mountains where they will see the exact Oyamel tree where their great-great-grand parents overwintered the season before — and without having been to México before this week!
Whether on the wings of a butterfly or the seat of a ferris wheel, the souls of loved ones return to earth to be remembered by their families and friends.
In late October millions of Monarchs begin to arrive to the magnificent oyamel fir and pine tree forests of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, located in the heart of Mexico in the eastern regions of Michoacán. Their return coincides with the annual celebration of Díade los Muertos, the Day of the Dead fiesta. Native peoples and their descendants today believe butterflies are the souls of departed loved ones, returning to Earth to be remembered by their ancestors. An even older tradition connects the Monarchs with the corn harvest, as their return signified that the corn was ripe. In the language of the native Purpécha Indians, the name for the Monarch is “harvester.”Ofrenda de Muertos Gloucester
I love the designs of the Papel Picado, especially the Dia de los Muertos skeletons doing everyday things. I found some at Nomad in Cambridge. Deb Colburn, the owner, curates gorgeous folk art for her shop from all around Mexico, and from all around the world. She’s a very sweet person to stop in and visit with, and is also very knowledge about Mexican culture. Nomad is located at 1741 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.
There is a beautiful ofrenda at the Peabody Museum at Harvard, which is where I learned about the Mexican Purépecha indigenous people’s name for the Monarch butterfly, the “Harvester.” The altar is part of the Museum’s permanent collection and is on display year round.
The Peabody Museum’s exhibition of a Day of the Dead ofrenda or altar is located in the Encounters With the Americas gallery. The exhibit features pieces from the Alice P. Melvin Collection of Mexican Folk Art and represents the Aztec origins of the holiday and the Catholic symbols incorporated into the tradition, from skeletons to plush Jesus figures.
The altar is contained within a box covered with panels that were decorated by local students and regional and international artists. The altars were designed by the Peabody exhibitions staff and Mexican artists Mizael Sanchez and Monica Martinez.
Originating with the Aztecs, the Mexican Day of the Dead is a unique blend of Mesoamerican and Christian rituals. The holiday, which is celebrated on November 1, All Saints’ Day, is usually dedicated to children; November 2, All Souls’ Day, is dedicated to adults.
Traditions vary from region to region, but generally families gather at cemeteries to tend and decorate the graves of their departed loved ones and remember them by telling stories, eating their favorite foods, and dancing in their honor. Many families build altars at home, decorated with flowers and food, especially pan de muerto or “bread of the dead.” A festive and social occasion, the holiday welcomes the return of those who have died and recognizes the human cycle of life and death.
The Peabody’s permanent altar features items from the Alice P. Melvin collection of Mexican folk art. To see these items, click here.
Curated by Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America and Mexican artist Mizael Sanchez.
To watch a video interview with Mizael Sanchez, click here.
On a recent visit to say hello to ELise and Tucker at Cedar Rock Gardens they were hard at work planting a humongous field of tulips, planned to bloom for next Mother’s Day. Elise generously shared pots of fresh marigolds dug from their fields, not in good enough shape to sell, but perfect for our first ever Day of the Dead altar, Ofrenda de Muertos.
The vibrant colors and fresh citrusy scent of marigolds lure the spirits–marigolds are strewn about and placed around the altar so the souls can find their way. There is a wild version of marigolds that blooms in October and the Spanish name for the flower is flor de muerto, or flower of death.
The altar, or “offering to the dead,” is a sacred Mexican tradition where those who have passed away are honored by the living. The celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd, on the 1st to honor the souls of children and on the 2nd, to honor adults. I became fascinated with the tradition after learning that Monarchs arrive in Mexico about the same time as Dia de los Muertos is celebrated. In Mexican folklore, butterflies represent the returning souls of departed loved ones. In the native language of the Purépecha, the name for the Monarch is the “harvester” butterfly. The Purépecha are a group of indigenous people centered in the northwestern region of the Mexican state of Michoacán, the very region to where the Monarchs return every year!
There is a beautiful ofrenda at the Peabody Museum, which is where I learned about the “Harvester” butterfly. The altar is part of the Museum’s permanent collection and is on display year round. Here is a link to the exhibit.
Thank you to Elise and Tucker at Cedar Rock Gardens for a super year in the garden. This was the couple’s first season opening the garden to the public and they did an outstanding job. Cedar Rock Gardens are a welcome addition to a fantastic and growing group of local farms. Their organic nursery and farm are brimming with a wonderful array of fresh flowers, produce, and seedlings. Every one of the plants from their nursery grew beautifully for me. Cedar Rock Gardens is closed for the year but I am so excited to be working again with them next year and will definitely be enrolling in their CSA 2017. See you in the spring!
Did you ever wonder why marigolds play such a prominent role in Day of the Dead celebrations? They are referred to as “flowers of the dead” and with their vivid hues and citrusy fresh scent, marigolds are thought to guide spirits to the altars. And, too, flowers in general represent the ephemerality of life.