Besides all the cute costumes our kids wore and the pounds of candy that made its way back into our homes yesterday (which I’ve already had too much of), many across our globe began a ritual of remembrance. What is rooted in Aztec tradition, The Day of the Dead has been carried on through many cultures, most significantly in Mexico.
Six years ago I found myself smack dab in the middle of a Day of the Dead parade in the Mission district of San Francisco. I had never heard of the Day of the Dead as a ritual, but here I was, listening to trumpets blare, drums pound around me and watching painted faces march by me.
I was fresh off the heels of a tumultuous, earth scorching divorce and my kind-hearted friend decided a trip was in order. Yes, I needed some lively fun and a bit of a disconnect from the day to day grind of raising three young daughters.
We checked ourselves into a hotel in Lower Nob Hill and meandered around the city. Waiting in line at CVS (I’m a member of the “just buy what you forget while traveling” club) we met a man in the check-out line.
His face was painted like a skeleton - typical Day of the Dead style and something I had never seen before - and he was wearing a suit. I was intrigued and asked him if he had a bad day at work.
He informed us that he was going to the Day of the Dead celebration later that evening, and I knew we had to be there too. Seldom do the words dead and celebration find themselves friends in the same sentence. I wanted to know more so we got the address and bought a couple of masks and made plans to be there.
My friend and I arrived in the Mission District a little scared of the sketchy vibe we were feeling being in a new place, but determined, and found ourselves in the center of the celebration. The top of the hill had tables draped in cloth, each table paying homage to the table owner’s ancestors.
Pictures of grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles were displayed in pretty frames and adorned with marigold flowers, twinkling tea lights and large candles. Some had incense lit – an offering of smoke to connect through the thin veil of those who have crossed over, and some offered water on their table to quench the thirst of their dearly departed as they travel back to earth to attend this celebration. It was magical.
This was a new frame of reference for me – a celebration of the dead. I wanted to cry for every face I saw framed. A longing in my heart welled up into my throat as tears formed in my eyes causing halos to form around all of the burning candles. Walking from table to table I wasn’t sure why my heart was swelling.
Was I moved seeing the faces of strangers that used to call earth home, knowing their footprints will no longer press into the earth and breath no longer be shared? Or was it from the amount of love that was being served on these tables and offered up to the invisible? Or maybe I was moved by remebering those I had lost – my dad, who seemed to send me messages every day, my Granny and my Nanny – grandmothers, whom I missed dearly, and my great-grandmother who I was named after but never got to meet.
I come from a long line of hard-working women who never give up, despite the odds stacked against them. Maybe I was moved with humility from the strength they have so selflessly shared with me.
My wonder silenced me as I smiled at every person I made eye contact with, so grateful to be there in this place witnessing and feeling so much love, and remembering all of the souls who have come before us.
The band was getting louder when we noticed a parade marching out of the darkness of the street and heading toward us. A parade! A moving celebration honoring the dead. Smiles grinning, music blaring and feet dancing, the parade moved down the street as I witnessed one of the most joyous occasions and gathering of strangers I have ever seen.
My friend and I decided to join, so we jumped right in and we’re accepted. We smiled and hugged and marched in awe, waiving to everyone we marched passed, connecting ourselves to this brilliant display of love.
The ritual of this celebration has not left my heart. While we could not see the loved ones we were honoring, I knew they were with us.
The feeling of the air was electric and soft, comforting and strong, like the molecules in the air had expanded and widened to make room for our visitors. We were all together, honoring the heartstrings that connect us to one another.
The ritual of the celebration my friend and I experienced has not left my heart. As I come off my sugar high from Halloween, today my family and I will light a candle for our ancestors. I’ve placed some pictures of my family on our table and some flowers before them, honoring a connection we have that will not be broken. I will light a candle for your dearly departed as well.
We carry our family and ancestors with us. They share in our joys and comfort us in our sorrows. And as it turns out, the best way to connect with them is to feel joy, because that’s where they live now, deep in our hearts, in the creases of our smiles, in the movement of our dancing feet, in the stories we share and the candle that flickers in their honor.
A celebration of lives lived and shared - a celebration of death and what has been been transformed, not lost. Death and celebration seem to be friends, indeed.
How blessed we are to have so many reasons to celebrate all who have come before us and all they have given us.
We never travel alone, our dearly departed and ancestors walk before us and behind us, beside us and within us, shaping our thoughts, sharing their wisdom and living in our hearts, we only need acknowledge their presence and their love. It's all around us.
Happy Day of the Dead, my friends. I'm celebrating with you.
Lots of love,