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CEPEDA: A holiday made for America

CHICAGO — When I was a kid, the Latin American holiday Day of the Dead -- a two-day observance that celebrates departed loved ones -- was a little-known tradition in the United States.Back then, the only place you'd see the brightly painted sugar skulls and pan de muerto — a sweet bread dusted with crystal sugar most commonly baked in the form of a human figure with its arms crossed at the waist, hug-like, or a mound with slender "bone" toppings — was the nearest Mexican bakery.

Not so these days.

You can find Day of the Dead sweets in major supermarkets — even some Whole Foods Markets celebrate with mariachis -- and brightly decorated skull sugar cookies and cupcakes can be found in most bakeries. Your local party store probably has a selection of Dia de los Muertos balloons, hanging paper decorations and pinatas to choose from.

Day of the Dead-themed jewelry and clothes can be found at mall gift stores, and if you really want to get the whole family into the groove, I've seen some pretty nifty Dia de los Muertos doggy T-shirts while surfing the Internet.

It's all fun and good, but I would love for this cultural artifact to break through the Halloween party trinket phase and take root in our broader American culture.

I never truly learned about the Day of the Dead until I prepared my first lesson plan about it and taught my first-graders what it means to honor the dead with joyful acts so a loved one's life could be recalled without re-experiencing the full pain of the loss.

The mostly Mexican-descendant students in my class taught me about how their families observed the holiday, in which infants and children are honored on Nov. 1 and adults on Nov. 2. These observances ranged from elaborate altar-building — the altar is any spot where you gather things your loved one enjoyed during his or her life and decorate it with pictures, candles and favorite food -- to no acknowledgements at all.

Like some of my students' families, mine never observed the Day of the Dead, but I was sold on it after understanding, in no small part from some of my 6-year-old students, that there is great power in going beyond mourning on solemn anniversaries.

That was how I learned to celebrate my daughter's short life. Before I got into the Day of the Dead spirit, I'd dread every Feb. 28 — I'd get upset if people didn't remember her birthday/death day, but it was also distressing to deal with others' kindhearted acknowledgements. Anyone who has lost someone close to them knows that it's hard to deal with your own pain and even tougher to navigate others' attempts to soothe it.

But the Day of the Dead mostly bypasses the pain of those grief-filled anniversaries that people who have lost close ones must endure over and over — the birthdays, the wedding anniversaries, the days of death — and instead provides a neutral, happy ritual that many celebrate at the same time.

Every year I get out the baby blankets and dried flowers, gather the bread, candles, Halloween candy and whatever toys my sons think their sister would have enjoyed and we have a few really close moments with the memory of the lost one in our lives. It's comforting.

According to news reports, across the country Day of the Dead trappings are becoming fixtures in community landscapes: There are parades, museum exhibits, fun runs and mixed-martial arts fights. That's great — these activities are perfect for getting wider audiences to become familiar with beautiful traditions that are spreading into this country.

But it would be even better if this celebration became as well-understood and popular as tacos, or salsa — and as revered as the boisterous Irish wake. If the Day of the Dead were adopted as a "new" United States custom, it would bring a measure of comfort to a nation that, unlike many other cultures in the world, has few communal rituals for remembering the departed.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.