On the third night, all dead are remembered. This corresponds to the Catholic feast days of All Saints and All Souls Day, which also commemorate the dead and resulted in All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.
Mexican culture holds that the curtain between life and death temporarily is drawn aside at night during El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, celebrated Oct. 31 through Nov. 2.
The spirits of our loved ones come to visit us, and creating a home altar is the traditional way to offer them a taste of the good things they once loved in life.
This year, I lost my father, so El Dia De Los Muertos will be special in my house. On my altar, I will offer Dad a bottle of Patron tequila because he loved his cocktail hour. I'll provide him with chocolate truffles from See's Candies. There will also be a fine Macanudo cigar.
My altar will be traditional, featuring the flowers that have been so vital to the blending of Aztec and European culture. Flowers held a special role in Aztec spirituality, serving as symbols of deities as well as specific celebrations.
The cut flower has long been a metaphor for the fleeting nature of human life, and it was the symbol of Aztec human sacrifice. Thus, in Mexico, there has always been a link between blood and flowers. Among the flowers for this occasion are wands of gladiolas that will gradually open their buds over these days of remembrance. They are often placed in a pair of vases flanking a picture of the deceased.
The wands are tall and full, creating a floral background for the altar table and its array of gifts to please the wandering spirit. The biggest challenge is to find red cockscomb, which is everywhere this time of year in Mexico. Its role descends from pre-Columbian amaranth, a nutritious seed offered to the god of war, Hummingbird. The long-stemmed blooms are blood-red, evoking the ancient rituals behind this contemporary feast day.
And above all there will be marigolds, the pungent Tagetes varieties that we grow in food gardens to keep insects at bay. This should not be confused with calendula, the pot marigold of Europe. Tagetes marigolds are lovers of heat. They originated from the small wildflower later bred to produce the dwarf French varieties and the pompons of African types that are preferred for altars. It is believed that the dead recognize and follow the strong scent of marigold petals, so they are strewn about the altar to help wandering souls find their gifts.
During the three-day celebration, the first night is for remembrance for those who died in childhood. The second night is devoted to remembering those who have died over the past year, like my father. On the third night, all dead are remembered. This corresponds to the Catholic feast days of All Saints and All Souls Day, which also commemorate the dead and resulted in All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.
It's not unusual to find Mexicans sitting by graves during these nights. Deep in Mexico, where old traditions are still practiced, you will find entire families together beside the graves, the old folks tending their decorations of candles and flowers while the children run free to race among the headstones.
This is so different from the way we remember the dead here in the U.S., with our uniformly manicured cemeteries that remain empty and silent all year. Many other plants are found on the Mexican home altars or those in a family business and at graveside. They blend with paper decorations and sugar skulls, both remnants of the grizzly Aztec practice made bright and joyful today.
In the U.S., we don't often partake in the old rituals of death, but at this end of the agricultural year, it is a natural devotion. For me, it is particularly poignant knowing that my father's spirit now may wander, too, along with those of his parents, his brother and all the ancestors who came before us.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.