9 Ways to Celebrate Día de los Muertos as a Nurse
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, originated in Mexico and Central America. It unfolds over two days of festivities, Nov. 1-2, each year. This two-day celebration is an opportunity to remember the lives of people who have departed, honoring them through traditional food and drink and creating altars to them called ofrendas.
There are many ways for nurses celebrating Día de los Muertos to participate this year, even if you're working the holidays. On this page, we share nine ways you can celebrate Muertos with your family, your coworkers, or even your patients.
The Importance of Día de los Muertos
Although the date for Día de los Muertos is close to Halloween on the calendar, it is not "Mexican Halloween." Celebrations should be led by Mexican and Latino nurses.
The celebration's focus is on honoring and remembering the dead through celebration rather than mourning. While Mexican people paint their faces in the style of La Catrina on this day, based on a skeleton created by artist José Guadualupe Posada, La Catrina is not a costume, or "sugar skull make-up," but holds strong cultural and religious significance.
The holiday began with the Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltec populations as they commemorated their departed during certain months of the year. There are separate celebrations for children and adults who have died. Now, Nov. 1 is used to remember children who have passed, and on Nov. 2, people honor the memory of departed adults.
One of the most recognized symbols of the celebration is the ofrenda or an altar where families provide loved ones with what they need on their journey. Leo Ramirez, an experienced registered nurse, celebrates Muertos with his family each year, honoring his and his wife's parents and grandparents.
"In paying respects to our ancestors, we always bring our own food, some things that our parents and our grandparents really enjoyed too," Ramirez says. "Díos de la Muertos is about them."
Each ofrenda has four elements: water, earth, wind, and fire. Families often decorate the altars with bright yellow-orange marigold flowers. They leave water, food, paper banners, and candles so the spirits of their loved ones can find their way from the land of the dead to join in the celebration. Skulls and skeletons are drawn with smiles on cookies, decorations, and face painting.
Monarch butterflies are believed to contain the spirits of departed loved ones. This belief may have started since the first monarchs arrive each year in Mexico for the winter on Nov. 1, which coincides with the first day of the celebration.
For Ramirez, Día de los Muertos is a day to reconnect with the people who are no longer physically here with us, and most of all, give respect and thank them for their life and love.
"[Día de los Muertos] means honoring those who were here before you and who left before you," Ramirez says. "We do not own the earth we live on, but we do own our emotions and those we have grown attached to while living here."
9 Ways You Can Celebrate Día de los Muertos This Year
Celebrations and decorations can help support patients and families when loved ones are hospitalized during cultural festivities, so decorating your floor or nurses' station is a great way to honor the holiday if you're on the clock. The following nine ways of honoring Día de los Muertos help create a festive atmosphere.
1. Create an Altar to Honor Loved Ones
Creating an altar is quintessential to celebrating Día de los Muertos. Ofrendas, or altars, are made to honor your loved ones who have passed, and they are unique to the people it was built to honor. Be creative and customize your altar in whatever ways honor your loved ones best.
Typical altars include:
- Candles: The light from candles welcomes spirits of loved ones back to their altars.
- Marigolds: Marigolds are yellow-orange flowers which symbolize death. The strong scent leads loved ones back to their altar. You can also sprinkle marigold petals on the floor around the altar to lead spirits to the altar.
- Incense: Like marigolds, the scent of incense helps guide spirits back to the altar. Copal incense, a dried resin from a tree native to Mexico, is most common.
- Photos of the deceased who the altar is dedicated to
- Pan de muerto: Pan de muerto is a traditional Mexican sweet bread.
- Calaveras: Calaveras are decorative or sugar skulls. They are a symbol of death and afterlife.
- Fresh seasonal fruit
- The departed loved ones' favorite foods
- Items that once belonged to the deceased
Most altars are built inside people's homes to honor their individual loved ones, but public altars can be found in honor of Día de los Muertos as well. Create a public altar at your workplace to collectively honor the dead, or visit public altars in schools, museums, or libraries to honor Día de los Muertos with your community.
2. Gift Traditional Mexican Treats to Coworkers
If you have to work on Día de los Muertos, you can celebrate with your nurse coworkers by bringing in treats like calaveras or sugar skulls, tamales, atole, pan de muerto, or other traditional treats.
3. Decorate Your Floor or Nurses' Station
If you do have to work on Día de los Muertos, decorating your floor or nurses' station can be a great way to celebrate while on the clock. You could decorate with:
- A Day of the Dead wreath full of brightly colored flowers and painted skulls
- Papel picados (tissue paper with cut designs)
- Alebrijes (sculptures of mythical creatures)
- Painted calaveras
Some hospitals even have contests for the best-decorated floor or nurses' station, so don't hold back on decorations this Día de los Muertos.
4. Attend Local Outdoor Festivals Celebrating the Day
Attending local festivals allows you to connect with your community, especially if you're unable to travel to celebrate with your loved ones. Ramirez finds these festivals to be welcoming and friendly.
"There are many people who you can strike up a conversation with who will chat with you about their loved ones," Ramirez says. "For others, the grief is still very real, but you can tell being at this event is most comforting for them."
Día de los Muertos festivals are filled with veladoras, small wax candles used to pay respect to the dead, along with orange marigolds. Festivals often have artists, performances, music and dancing, community ofrendas, and treats like champurrado.
5. Eat and Drink Comida Mexicana to Celebrate
As Día de los Muertos is celebrated over many days, cooking and eating traditional Día de los Muertos foods can also honor the dead. Filling your home with the scent of your loved ones' favorite foods is a wonderful way to spend time remembering your bond.
These foods can look different for each family, as the foods prepared are often the favorite foods and drinks enjoyed by your loved ones while they were alive.
For Ramirez, his family makes tamales and atole, but there are many other traditional Día de los Muertos foods, including:
- Pan de muerto
- Mole negro
- Red pozole
- Sopa azteca
- Caramel flan
- Seasonal calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin)
For drinks, you have several traditional options:
- Champurrado (atole with added chocolate for chocolate lovers)
- Agua de Jamaica
- Pulque, or the nectar of the gods
6. Visit and Decorate Gravesites of Loved Ones
End your Muertos festivities at the cemetery, visiting your loved ones' plots. You can bring a picnic full of your loved ones' favorite foods, decorate the graves, and spend time honoring their life.
"People are here ending their days, singing with guitars, spreading flowers, and giving their respects," Ramirez says. "There should be a day like this in every culture … not just ours."
7. FaceTime or Call Family Members Far Away
Because of COVID-19 and the shortage of nurses, not everyone can travel to be with family, especially if you're scheduled to work. Ramirez reminds us that Muertos is not about the living. No matter where you are, anyone is able to pay respects and celebrate the memories of those whom they have lost.
"Even if you cannot be physically with others who share your grief, a message, or FaceTime, or any call, is always going to be more than good enough," Ramirez says.
8. Find Support in Your Community
Ift's increasingly difficult for nurses to take days off. If you're unable to take the day off to celebrate, or can't find the time to visit with family, know that your community will take care of you and that there is always time to celebrate next year.
Ramirez says if you can't make it out to your loved ones' graves, there's a chance someone else will decorate their graves in your absence.
"We have pulled flowers from the graves of our families and put them onto the graves of others who have no flowers, and many people do this as well," he says.
9. Watch Coco With Your Family
After a long shift or a day full of baking and honoring your loved ones, end the day watching Coco. Coco is Pixar's animated Day of the Dead film, which hosts a cast of almost all Latino/a voices. It takes viewers through a young boy's journey to discover his family history. This is the perfect film to watch to celebrate the day, especially if you have little ones in the house.
Meet Our Contributor
Leo Ramirez, RN
Leo Ramirez was born in Mexico. He and his wife, also from Mexico, are both registered nurses. Ramirez and his family like to celebrate many traditional Mexican events the "old fashioned way." They have four cats and one child. Ramirez entered the healthcare field to help others keep and stay healthy.
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