I've read a few websites and asked a number of friends here in Ciudad Juárez trying to figure out what the actual holiday was, and this is what I have determined.
On the evening of October 31, altars are made for deceased children. On November 1 and 2, people make altars for any deceased person. Thus, Día de los Muertos overlaps with America's Halloween on October 31, and with Catholicism's All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls' Day (Nov. 2).
It is not a morbid or sad holiday. It is actually quite happy and joyous. The altars are not for worshipping dead people. The altars are for commemorating, for remembering. Traditionally they are very colorful with beautiful cut paper art, yellow marigolds, a special bread called pan de los muertos, and sugar skulls. The sugar skulls are colorful with pretty designs. The altar will also include the deceased person's favorite foods, pictures, and articles that represent hobbies or other aspects of the deceased's life. It is a time when it is believed that the veil separating life and death is very thin and those you love can be with you again.
We've had a busy weekend celebrating all of the holidays. On Friday of last week, we trick or treated at the Consulate where Jeff works. Then we went out in the evening to a Día de los Muertos party, complete with elaborate altars, many Catrinas and Catríns, delicious tamales, a puppet show, and I think a parade happened after we left (my kids needed to get to bed).
Then on Saturday, we went trick or treating at the El Paso Zoo for their Boo at the Zoo. We didn't actually trick or treat very much, but it was a good reason to get out of the house and walk a lot. And the kids enjoyed themselves. They didn't seem to notice that we didn't do a good job of following the map and getting to the candy stations.
Sunday we had regular church services. Sunday was also the anniversary of the death of my sweet niece Tabitha. We lost her to SIDS five years ago when she was just six months old. It is still so sad and almost unbelievable that she didn't get to stay with us in her beautiful family, but thinking of Día de los Muertos where the focus is celebrating the time you did have with someone, and receiving pictures from my brother of my little preemie niece Valerie who was supposed to be born in October but came in July instead and was recently home from the hospital, I felt joy in my heart.
Monday was actual Halloween. Since I live in a border town, some Mexicans have adopted American holidays that they like. So there was trick or treating at the mall near my house during the day, and then my neighborhood actually had trick or treating in the evening. My kids were thrilled about this. Somewhere between one third and one half of my neighbors participated by handing out candy. And I wondered if the act of giving to candy to children works with the idea of that night being the night that deceased children are able to visit. At the dark houses who weren't handing out candy, I wondered if our trick or treating was disturbing their festivities. The Mexican way (or at least the Juarense way) to trick or treat is not to ring doorbells and say "trick or treat," but to walk through the streets chanting "Queremos Halloween" (We want Halloween"). Those inside their homes will hear you, usually through an open window, and open their doors to give you candy.
Tuesday was also Día de los Muertos and All Saints' Day. The children had a party at school, which combined the two holidays. A priest came and held mass for All Saints' Day and the students were invited to dress up like saints and angels. Last year, I'm not sure what happened, but I dressed my kids up in their Catrina and Catrín costumes. They were the only ones. This year, Jill dressed up as a saint (she chose Saint Philomena), and none of my other kids wanted to participate in costume (although Alice decided to wear her Mexican dress), and there actually were two other students dressed up as Catrinas. So we wouldn't have been the only ones this year! After the mass, we all ate pan de muerte and drank delicious abuelita while we walked around to the classrooms to see the altars our children had made.
Today was the last day of Día de los Muertos and All Souls' Day. There was no school and the Consulate was closed. We didn't make any altars in our home, but Jill did spend the morning calling her grandparents and asking them about their parents and writing down information about each of her deceased great grandparents. I enjoyed hearing the stories my parents and in-laws shared with her, some familiar and some new.
Halloween 2015: I have since realized that to be a Catrín and not just a skeleton, I need to put clothes over the skeleton costume, but alas, I can't go back in time and fix that error.
All Saints' Day 2015: Daniel's class's altar, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Colegio Kari Montessori)
All Saints' Day 2015: Jill's class's altar, Mother Teresa (Colegio Kari Montessori)
Halloween 2016: This year, we separated the holidays more by having different costumes for Halloween and for Día de los Muertos. For Halloween, Daniel was Ironman; Gordon, Mickey Mouse; Alice, Minnie Mouse; and Jill, a cheerleader.
Día de los Muertos 2016: We attended a Día de los Muertos party. We arrived fresh faced and left with painted faces. I think the skeleton face symbolizes that we all have death within us and that the distance between life and death is not actually all that far—that our loved ones are not that far away. (Colegio San Patricio)
Día de los Muertos 2016: One of the altars at the party. Shortly after I took this picture, Gordon knocked over the guitar, which knocked over one of the candles, which made me have a miniature heart attack, but luckily nothing burned down. (Colegio San Patricio)
Halloween 2016: Trick or treating at Boo at the El Paso Zoo
All Saints' Day 2016: Some of the students dressed up like saints and angels for the mass at school. (Colegio Kari Montessori)
Día de los Muertos 2016: Gordon's class's altar, Diego Rivera (Colegio Kari Montessori)
Día de los Muertos 2016: Alice and Daniel's class's altar, Frida Kahlo (Colegio Kari Montessori)
Día de los Muertos 2016: Jill's class's altar, Pablo Picasso (Colegio Kari Montessori)
I am very grateful to the wonderful Mexicans we have met during our time here who have embraced us and welcomed us into their homes and culture. Honoring and remembering our deceased ancestors is very important to me, so I appreciate this joyous holiday.
(Also disclaimer, I'm sorry if I got anything wrong with the holiday. I'm trying my best to figure it out!)
Click here to watch a video of a cool Catrina/Catrín Día de los Muertos parade.