A Day of the Dead Celebration

Sometimes when we travel, we collect more than souvenirs. We find traditions and stories that resonate so much with our own lives we have to bring them home. Hallmark Photo Stylist Betsy G. found beauty and meaning in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration (Dia de los Muertos), which she now shares with friends in Kansas City. 

Dressed for a Day of the Dead celebration with a sugar-skull inspired mask, standing in front of a decorated ofrenda

Skeleton decorations at a Day of the Dead celebration

My first trip to Mexico was momentous. While traveling with my very knowledgeable friend Melody to the Mayan jungle ruin of Palenque, we made a spontaneous decision to explore the town of San Cristobal de las Casas. This Spanish colonial town is tucked high in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. Wow! The Market was full of indigenous Tzotzil Maya people. The men wore hand-woven hot pink Huipils (tunics), with large hot pink pompoms, and hand-woven straw hats with multicolored ribbon streamers. Lots of precious little faces with big round brown eyes peeked out from the rebozos wrapped on mamas’ backs. The town was such a visual treat, bursting with everything from fresh fruit, to calla lilies, to delicate handmade cages complete with singing parakeets. Unbelievable!

I was hooked. I kept coming back to Mexico to explore its culture, customs and traditions. Traveling to the interior was far more interesting to me than the (although beautiful) beaches of Cancun. I started searching for antique collectibles like milagros and ex-votos (religious charms and tokens of gratitude for answered prayers) and soon became aware of Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Traditional Dia de los Muertos decorations

One year I visited the Dia de los Muertos celebration in Oaxaca, which was a spectacle of food vendors, music and artisans creating sand and flower designs on the streets. Another year I visited Pátzcuaro, in the state Michoacán, which holds the most famous of all Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico. This celebration was so huge that we had to sleep in our car. At dawn I went back to the cemetery to see the decorated graves and the families of the deceased who had spent the night by campfires. It was here that I realized that even in the cemetery this was a celebration. The families were proud of the graves they had so beautifully decorated in honor of their lost relatives. They allowed me to take pictures and were grateful when I offered them Polaroid images in return.

Through the years my collection has grown. By traveling to U.S. cities like Santa Fe, Taos, San Antonio, and Austin, I was able to build a large collection of paper cutouts and skeletons. Every few years I bring out the skeletons, create an altar, invite friends, and beg my loyal friend and neighbor Kathy to make an authentic Mexican dish.

Decorations and food for a Day of the Dead celebration

This year I made a display in honor of my Mother who passed away in 2011. I love the old black and white images of her.

Items from a Dia de los Muertos altar, or ofrenda

I moved a bookcase and stacked a couple of boards to make a step-style backdrop. I covered the steps with linen tablecloths, and displayed fruit, candies, cookies, and candles with my papier-mâché skeletons and miniature collectibles.

Objects and photos on a Day of the Dead altar

And of course my Chihuahua Lolita is always happy to greet our guests. Everyone enjoyed the good food, drink and music!

A chihuahua and a friend in festive Day of the Dead accessories

Do you participate in a Day of the Dead celebration? Show us how on Instagram @thinkmakeshare.

Photographer: Jane Kortright  |  Stylist: Betsy Gantt

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  1. 10.24.16 | Reply
    marcella wrote:

    What a beautiful tradition Day of the Dead is and you really made it so special. Betsy you are so talented!