Halloween in Spanish: Day of the Dead Altar

October 21, 2012 — One of my unfulfilled dreams that has no good reason to keep going unfulfilled is to experience El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, in Mexico.

The Day of the Dead is a Latin American celebration that involves parties at graveyards after dark (and sometimes spending the night there), adding the phrase “de los muertos” on the end of a lot of words, making sweets in the shape of coffins and bones, and in general giving the macabre a good name. I’m in awe of this holiday.

And in Mexico, they celebrate it hard.

The festival merges ancient Aztec and modern Catholic ritual and iconography, and, as a result, has a distinct ambiance: brightly colored, with elaborately stylized decorations that are heavy on skeletons and skulls.

It’s not fair to call it Mexican Halloween, but that’s how I think of it. And I want a Mexican Halloween as much as I want a London Christmas.

The problem for me has always been its timing. The Day of the Dead is a two, sometimes three-day long festival that starts on November 1, the day after Halloween. And on November 1st, I’m invariably suffering from what’s basically a Halloween hangover after overdosing on the holiday for a month and a half. Like I said in the intro, no good reason.

So until I finally get the chance to wear a sombrero with skeletons dangling from the brim and stuff my cheeks full of sugar skulls and tequila like some demonic squirrel, the closest I’ll get to the Day of the Dead is, well, Harvard.

I’ve written already about my visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Admission there also gives you access to the adjacent Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, located at 11 Divinity Avenue. The latter is also a really cool museum, even if I’m better at appreciating a Kronosaurus skeleton than a totem pole. That’s my flaw, not the museum’s.

The Peabody Museum has been around since 1866 and is a multi-floor anthropology collection that includes artifacts from all the indigenous cultures of the New World.

In its Encounters with the Americas Gallery on the third floor (where you’ll be entering it if you’re coming from the adjoining natural history museum), the curators have created a large Day of the Dead altar. Called an ofrenda in the language of its celebrants, the altar is used to offer gifts and food for the dead, and you can find them everywhere during the festival…on the streets, in the graveyards, in people’s homes.

The Peabody Museum put together its altar using pieces from its Alice P. Melvin Collection of Mexican Folk Art…which means, lots of skeletons. You can see each piece individually here.

The altar was created by artist Mizael Sanchez, and is a permanent feature of the museum. It’s contained within a ten-foot-tall bright purple display case, at the top of which is a common Mexican phrase that translates to, “The dead can rest while the living shall party.” On its sides is a series of Day of the Dead-inspired paintings…which means lots of skeletons. There’s a great video with the artist about it here.

Even better, the Peabody Museum actually celebrates the Day of the Dead on its premises, which I only just learned while writing this article. Hopefully I can put off my Halloween hangover and the pressures of a too-early Christmas long enough to check it out this year.