The informant is 56 years old. She is Mexican and was born in Mérida, Yucatán. She moved to California when she was 6 six years old, but still remembers many of the local traditions, especially the tradition surrounding the Day of the Dead.
Before the celebration begins, people clean their houses, making sure the laundry is done and the dishes are washed. This is because if a deceased family member’s spirit comes to visit on the Day of the Dead, you don’t want them to have to do the work for you, or at least feel like they should. The celebration is supposed to be a time for them to enjoy themselves, and like awaiting the arrival of any house guest, you always clean up to make things presentable.
The Día de los Muertos celebration begins on October 31st. As the first day of the celebration, it is dedicated to celebrating the passing of the children. Any babies or toddlers that have died in the past year are honored on this day. Families set up an altar or a shrine. The altar is covered with a white tablecloth that has colorful embroidery around the edges. A green cross is placed on the altar because this is the color of Mérida. Colorful candles are set up too. Then, the deceased one’s favorite dishes are put out on the shrine. These can be anything from favorite candies to Mexican pan dulce bread. Favorite toys and games are set up too. Sometimes these are marbles, or even coloring books—it just depends on whatever happened to be the child’s favorite. Pictures are also put on the altar. After the altar has been assembled, the family gathers to say the Rosary. The altar stays up for the entire day and night of the 31st.
On November 1st, the child’s altar is taken down and another one is set up, this time celebrating the passing of any adults. The decoration for these altars is all black and white. The white tablecloth has black embroidery and white candles are placed on the altar. Pictures are put up and the adults favorite foods are placed on the altar as well. Again, these can be the pan dulce bread or tamales, even shots of whiskey or a pack of cigarettes. The altar is left up all day and night.
On November 2nd, the adult altar is taken down and the day is set aside for going to visit the grave sites of the deceased family members. Sometimes candles are burned on the graves, or flowers are set upon them. This marks the end of the Día de los Muertos celebration.
As my informant said, the entire celebration is a way to celebrate the life of a loved one. The altars are meant for families to pay their respects to the dead by presenting them with all of their favorite things from life. It is a festive way of honoring the dead, and communing with the spirits that come back for a visit.