The Day of the Dead is a beautiful holiday filled with symbols, family traditions, and imagery; it is single-handedly one of the most colorful holidays celebrated in the world. Every detail represents something of significance and is so special to the celebrating families. Today we are going to show you a couple of books that beautifully honor this special holiday, but first, let’s look at what the day is all about!
The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday that commemorates dead relatives. It is commonly characterized by altars (or “ofrendas”) decorated with skulls, marigolds, and pictures of passed loved ones. There are usually four elements that make up the ofrenda: water, wind, earth, and fire. Water is left in the pitcher so that the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel Picado, or paper banners, represents the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread. Candles are often left in the form of a cross to represent the cardinal directions so that the spirits can find their way to and from the mortal and spiritual world. Every state in Mexico practices and performs its ofrendas differently. There can be even up to seven levels of the ofrenda.
The skulls found on the ofrenda are called “calavera,” the smallerer skulls are the “calaverita,” and “calavera de azucar” is the sugar skull. These are placed on the altar and often have the name of the deceased person inscribed on the forehead.
This holiday takes the span of two days on November 1st and 2nd. It is a fusion of Roman Catholic rituals, such as All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Also, it derives from pre-Christian indigenous festivals that occurred in agrarian communities throughout Latin America in the 1500s. It mainly consists of rituals that are served to honor ancestors; you cultivate altars to thank the ancestors for their blessings by placing harvest offerings. On this day it is believed that the spirits are most active and help the living to be successful, fulfilled, and happy.
There are many places in the world that celebrate the Day of the Dead besides Mexico. There are parts that perform similar types of ritual offerings for the dead, especially around harvest. In ancient Egypt, there were offerings to Osiris (god of the dead and harvest). These similar practices also occur in Africa and Asia. Performing acts of offerings to the dead is a common practice across multiple cultures.
The first book recommendation that we have for you on this day is by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer entitled The Skeleton at the Feast, and it educates even further on the history of the Day of the Dead, and how Mexican communities celebrate this festival.
For those who do not know much about the holiday and wish to know more about it, this is a great read. It is a wonderful way to get acquainted with the culture, and it is written in such a way that both a highschooler and an adult can read; it is very accessible. It goes through the holiday and discusses the history behind it; such as the ancient celebrations that took place with the Aztecs and other indigenous groups. It goes on to show the evolution of the holiday in Mexico, and how the celebrations vary regionally.
The Days of the Dead by John Greenleigh and Rosalind Beimler
This book is full of incredible photos that show contemporary ofrendas and alters from Mexican rural villages. It also has pictures that show where people go to buy pieces for their alters. This is a less text-heavy book and is more centered around photo narratives that show the history of the Day of the Dead. It shows a lot of the day-to-day activities that center around the preparation and is a very good background knowledge book to grasp the history and what the holiday is about. So, if you’re not much into reading but want to further educate yourself on this heritage, this is the book for you!
Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago
Written and illustrated by Mexican artist Flavia Drago, this is a cute little children’s book that greatly underscores colorful heritage. It centers around Gustavo who is good at a lot of things: from flying through walls and making objects fly; but, he is very shy and finds it hard to get in line for eye screams, or make friends with fellow ghouls. Now that the Day of the Dead is just around the corner, he must figure out how to get people to notice him so that he won’t be so lonely. All he wants to do is share this holiday with someone that he loves.
Chicanos en Mictlan by Tere Romo
This book looks at how the Day of the Dead is celebrated in California, and how pre-Columbian spiritual practices influenced altar-making. Tere Romo was someone who was active in bringing Day of the Dead celebrations to the United States. She started to hold these celebrations in the US as well as conduct art galleries at schools and so forth. They first began in Latino art galleries to hold these celebrations, but then it all became more popular and started to spread across the country. Today, these traditional altars are seen as forms of art. There are celebrations with food, music, and dancing in museums such as the Smithsonian or the Met in New York. Many museums around the world have embraced this beautiful culture and are celebrating it with artistic merit. This book further takes interest in exploring how the Day of the Dead culture has impacted and transformed throughout the US, and how it has become mainstream.
Here at Bookstr, we hope you have a wonderful Dia de Los Muertos if you celebrate! Be sure to check out some of these reads if not, and observe this beautiful, cultural practice. For more holiday recommendations, you can check out more here!