Imported tradition |

Imported tradition

Nevada County’s Altar Show has endured a decade, showing how this imported tradition speaks to something in the American soul.

The show is open daily from noon to 8 p.m. today through Sunday in the Northern Mines Building of the Nevada County Fairgrounds. In it, residents offer memories of departed loved ones, hopes for peace, love for creation, judgment of greed and the

distress of family disruptions short of death.

Some people have created altars that honor historical movements or the struggles of particular groups in history, to make a statement about theological prejudices, to stir gratitude for natural resources and question the war in Iraq.

In Mexico, people also erect altars this time of year to honor their departed. People I knew there called them their “muertitos,” their dear dead ones.

I lived in a village in central Mexico with a family of indigenous Mixteco background. Their house had an altar for daily prayer, but in mid-October, the grandmother covered it with her best lace tablecloth. The altar had photographs of people, such as

her first husband and a daughter killed as a teen when the roof of the village church collapsed, and images of her favorite saints.

On and around the altar, she set up candlesticks holding tall, thick white tapers and a dozen vases of white flowers ” gladiolas, mainly. She also had buckets of large, long-stemmed marigolds, called “flower of the dead” in the indigenous language.

Grandmother set out bottles of Coca-Cola and Corona beer, little clay bowls of beans or turkey in mole sauce, and plates piled high with sweet bread with crossed dough bones, called bread of the dead.

Just before Day of the Dead on Nov. 1 (sometimes celebrated Nov. 2, or even both days, depending on the region) grandmother pulled the petals off the marigolds and sprinkled them all over the altar, then in a trail leading across the cement floor, out the metal door, down the step and onto the dirt street outside.

That was so the soul of the dear dead ones could find their way into the house and to the altar, where they would partake of the worldly sustenance their survivors left for them, another of grandmother’s daughters explained.

Other houses in the village had similar altars. A kinswoman around the corner had an altar that took up half her front room, with the photos of 10 relatives killed in the church roof collapse. Cheerful cut-tissue-paper adornments bearing the images of laughing and drinking skeletons hung from the ceiling.

The church roof had collapsed about 20 years earlier, but the two families, and more in the village, each year renewed their grieving and remembering for a few days during Day of the Dead.

This exuberant embracing of death and grief collided with my Puritan-rooted culture and Protestant sense of restraint ” and revealed the shortcomings of the way we, in America, try to turn our backs on death and the feelings it stirs. I instantly fell in love with the tradition, and Day of the Dead became my favorite holiday during my years living in Mexico.

Americanization of muertitos

The other day, I was at the home of an American friend who had erected an altar in her house, honoring the dear departed in her and her husband’s families ” a father, grandparents and great-grandparents.

Her church on Sunday also celebrated Day of the Dead ” not the sanitized Christian All Saints Day ” with making paper flowers and decorating paper skulls, another Mexican custom of the season.

In other parts of the United States, especially where Mexican immigrants have had an impact, schools, churches and shopping centers also increasingly have Day of the Dead altars and events.

It occurred to me that our cultural focus on the afterlife and ever-improving the present life give us a way out of thinking much about death, until it comes to our door.

Even at funerals, we feel the need to rein our emotions, lest we upset others trying to be supportive of us. American cultural and religious traditions offer few socially

acceptable ways to publicly wrestle with the grief that comes weeks, months and years after the dear one has departed.

Altars creeping into the American mainstream, such as those at the Altar Show: Remembrance and Renewal, offer us a way to ritualize the feeling of those strong, sad feelings that won’t go away, but just become more manageable over time.


To contact City Editor Trina Kleist, e-mail or call 477-4230.

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