Dia de los Muertos Comes to Loveland

Dia de los Muertos, also known as “Day of the Dead”, is a traditional Mexican holiday that is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. The celebration is a one or two-day event, depending on what part of Mexico one visits. If the celebration is a two-day event, one day is dedicated to deceased children and the other is dedicated to other deceased members of the family. This day is also called “All Saints Day” or “All Souls Day” in other cultures. Dia de los Muertos is the celebration of deceased loved ones and the celebration of life and evolved into a combination of Catholic beliefs and the ancient civilizations.

There are currently five Dia de los Muertos altars on display at the Loveland Public Library and Loveland Museum and Gallery. One of those altars was built and shared by Loveland artist, Julie Gillen, who built a more contemporary altar for her maternal and paternal grandparents. Her altar, pictured to the left, is located at the Loveland Museum. Gillen became interested in Dia de los Muertos and the ritual of building altars during a visit to Santa Cruz, California.

“I was struck by the beauty of it. The colors, the lights and smells coming from the window displays as I walked down the streets of Santa Cruz. I thought it was such a lovely way to tell a story. To remember and share your loved one’s spirit. I am incredibly fascinated by the way other cultures celebrate the cycle of life. They embrace death without fear.”

Gillen said the altars are an intimate way to story tell and preserve your past by keeping these traditions alive. Gillen has been building altars since 1999 and teaches others about the proper Dia de los Muertos traditions as well as offers workshops on how to build sugar skulls. Altars are built with the hopes of attracting your loved one’s spirit from beyond the grave. Altars are built on All Saint’s Day because they believe this is the only day spirits can come back. Offerings of a loved one’s favorite food and drink are placed to attract them to the right place along with other items like flowers, toys and personal mementos. Soap and water are also placed on the altar for the spirit to wash up after their long travels.

Sugar skulls are a must-have when building an altar. Back then, sugar was plentiful and people made sugar skulls for each deceased loved one. They often added foil with their beloved’s name adhered to the top of the sugar skull. Later the sugar skulls were decorated with a thick, colorful icing called “Royal Icing” and now other materials are used like paint and beads. Sugar skulls are not meant to be eaten and can last for years.

Gillen explained that one of the biggest differences between the Dia de los Muertos and Halloween is the skeletons used in each festivity.  “One will notice that even the skeletons are different. Instead of straight-faced skeleton grins, the traditional Dia de los Muertos skeletons all have big, toothy smiles and are often doing silly things. The skeletons are mocking death.  The skeletons are there to remind us to enjoy life while you still have it.”

Altars aren’t the only way people celebrate Dia de los Muertos; in fact, some families take picnics to their loved one’s tombstones. Other families even go as far as cleaning a bedroom and making a bed up for their loved ones to rest once they arrive.

Dia de los Muertos started in Mexico, but its popularity has spread to other parts of the world including the United States. Whether it's celebrated by building an altar or having lunch in a cemetery, it’s a yearly reminder to reflect on your own life while you are remembering a past loved one’s life. This celebration is meant to help preserve your past while keeping your family’s traditions alive, or as Julie Gillen did, create a new one.

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