The University of Northern Iowa has a temporary display showing the trappings and history of “Day of the Dead.” Lydia Robert at U-N-I’s Center for Multicultural Education says it’s a holiday that goes back three-thousand years, to the time of the Aztecs in America.
It was a brutal time, she says, pointing out today’s celebration involves special candy including skull-shaped sweets made of sugar. But the Aztecs kept genuine human skulls around, to symbolize death and rebirth.
Roberts says the holiday’s origin has nothing to do with the origin of Halloween, though European invaders did change its late-summer celebration date. The Spaniards thought it was “rather barbaric,” and did move the date to their All-Saints Day, hoping to “being a little more civility to the tradition.” Roberts says the standards have changed with the times and now it’s a popular ethnic holiday.
It’s celebrated throughout the U.S., especially southern states, and is celebrated throughout Mexico. In this country, she says, the further south you go, the more intense and spiritual the celebrations may be. Roberts says today, the Day of the Dead generally is celebrated on the first and second of November.
The first day is for Angelitos, the “little angels” of babies and children who’ve died. At the altars people put photos of the people being honored as well as their favorite items…and they put out sweets November first, as the spirits of the children come back that evening, eat and visit with the people who are living. The second day’s for adults and there may be wine on the altar, a piece of favorite clothing and other items the dead person enjoyed during life. There are flowers, often marigolds because their flame-like colors symbolize the sun, rebirth and the idea that death is just a beginning.
It’s an exciting time, she says, with lit candles and incense, music and songs, and people who are in a celebrative mood. It’s a time of honoring those who’ve passed, of remembering them and being joyous over what they’ve brought into your life, not sad that they are gone. Located in the Maucker Union, the U-N-I Center for Multi-Cultural Education offers a library, computer lab and other resources to learn about minorities on campus.