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  • Deborah Kade

Desert Botanical Garden Phoenix, Arizona Día de los Muertos Celebration

Updated: Oct 14, 2019


My friend Rosie and I decided to attend the Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, at the Desert Botanical Garden.

Día de los Muertos at the Desert Botanical Garden was a two-day festival filled with music, dance and storytelling that explore the beauty and meaning of this special holiday. Children loved the crafts and face painting, and the whole family enjoyed the entertainment and browsing the Mercado filled with art, jewelry and other wares.









Each day ends with La Procesión, a procession through the Garden by all the performers and audience members, concluding with a traditional burning of troubles. La Procesión represents the ancient tradition of marching as a community to burial sites in order to honor those who have passed on and is a treasured highlight of this annual event.









The lady collected the prayer intentions in her basket. You also could write down a worry or trouble you wished to release. The slips were then burned as the sun set.




Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

The tradition dates back 3,000 years, during the time of the Aztecs. It survived through the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived to central Mexico and thought the tradition to be sacrilegious. Instead of it being abolished, however, the celebration evolved to incorporate elements of Christianity, such as celebrating it on November 1 and 2 instead of on its original summer observance to coincide with All Saints’ or All Souls’ Day, a time to pray for departed souls. Día de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. (Día de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar.) Day of the Dead combines the ancient Aztec custom of celebrating ancestors with All Souls' Day, a holiday that Spanish invaders brought to Mexico starting in the early 1500s.

Despite the white faces and the skulls, it's not meant to be a spooky holiday and it's not Halloween. Also known as Día de Muertos, the celebration originated in central and southern Mexico. Those who celebrate it believe that at midnight on October 31, the souls of all deceased children come down from heaven and reunite with their families on November 1, and the souls of deceased adults come visit on November 2.


The holiday, which is celebrated mostly in Mexico on November 1 and 2, is like a family reunion—except dead ancestors are the guests of honor. Day of the Dead is a joyful time that helps people remember the deceased and celebrate their memory.

Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones.

Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Día de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Día de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Día de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.




The most familiar symbol of Dia de los Muertos may be the calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), which appear everywhere during the holiday: in candied sweets, as parade masks, as dolls. Calacas and calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, often in fancy clothes and entertaining situations.





The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Scattered from altar to grave site, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.

First, people set up a candlelit altar in their homes so spirits can find their way back to their relatives. The altar also offers some of the favorite foods of the deceased—just in case they get hungry. Items that were important to the ancestors when they were alive, such as a favorite book or musical instrument, are placed on the altar as well.

Families make colorful altars in their homes in honor of their deceased loved ones, and the altars are decorated with flowers, candles, their loved one's favorite food and pan de muerto (a slightly sweet bread specifically made for this time).

You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living. At least that’s the traditional belief in Mexico. Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar. Other common offerings:

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors, they come in all sizes and levels of complexity.

Drinks, including pulque, a sweet fermented beverage made from the agave sap; atole, a thin warm porridge made from corn flour, with unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla added; and hot chocolate.



The Ofrenda Exhibit: Ofrenda, or Offering, is part of the traditional Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos. The altars are original pieces specifically created for this celebration by local artists.










Rosie and I wrote intentions to honor family whom have passed.


Don't forget the skeletons. During Day of the Dead, life-size papier-mâché skeletons and miniature plastic or clay skeletons are everywhere. Why? Mexicans honor their ancestors on Day of the Dead, but they're also reminding themselves that death is just a part of life. Hanging out with skeletons reminds people that one day they will be skeletons—but not for a very long time!


Then, it's off to the graveyard for a big party. Families bring a huge feast to eat while they clean tombstones, sing songs, and talk to their ancestors. Parents might even introduce a baby to a grandparent who died before the baby was born.

Calavera means “skull.” But during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, calavera was used to describe short, humorous poems, which were often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs published in newspapers that poked fun at the living. These literary calaveras eventually became a popular part of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Today the practice is alive and well. You’ll find these clever, biting poems in print, read aloud, and broadcast on television and radio programs.

“Todos somos calaveras” means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath all our man made trappings, we are all the same.

Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, and, mimicking the calavera Catrina, they don suits and fancy dresses. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.





Papel Picado

You’ve probably seen this beautiful Mexican paper craft plenty of times in stateside Mexican restaurants. The literal translation, pierced paper, perfectly describes how it’s made. Artisans stack colored tissue paper in dozens of layers, then perforate the layers with hammer and chisel points. Papel picado isn’t used exclusively during Day of the Dead, but it plays an important role in the holiday. Draped around altars and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.

Papel picado ("perforated paper", "pecked paper") is a decorative craft made out of paper cut into beautiful and elaborate designs. It is considered a Mexican folk art. The designs are commonly cut from coloured tissue paper using a guide or template and small chisels, creating as many as forty banners at a time. Papel picado can also be made by folding tissue paper and using small, sharp scissors. Common themes include birds, floral designs, and skeletons. They are commonly displayed for both secular and religious occasions, such as Easter, Christmas, the Day of the Dead, as well as during weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms, and christenings. In Mexico, papel picado is especially incorporated into altars during the Day of the Dead.





There was entertainment throughout the Garden.





One of the dancers chose Rosie to dance with.


Lots of applause!!!! Rosie and Woody loved to dance and she certainly hasn't lost any of her dance moves!


This couple was very patient with me as I jumped around to snap pictures. Thanks for your understanding.



As the sun was setting over the Garden, the slips with our intentions were burned.


A moment of silence to honor our dearly departed.


The sunset was a perfect backdrop for the ceremony.






We lit our votive as the procession passed. Then, we placed our votive on the tree when we exited the closing ceremony.


The Chihuly glass sculptures at the entrance to the Garden.




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