Day of the Dead is a big holiday in Bolivia. It is celebrated over two days, on November 1st and 2nd. The first day is technically Todos Santos, or All-Saints Day, and the second day is Dia de los Difuntos, or Day of the Dead, but the two days together are act as a single holiday. Day of the Dead in Bolivia is a fusion of pre-hispanic indigenous traditions and the Catholic tradition of All-Saints. It is an intimate and melancholy celebration, unlike any holiday I’ve ever participated in.
The Souls of the Dead
During the Day of the Dead in Bolivia, people believe that the souls of the dead come back as spirits to visit their homes for twenty-four hours, from noon on November 1st until noon on November 2nd. It is the one day of the year where the souls of the dead return to Earth. The traditions of the holiday are all centered around those twenty-four hours.
Halloween is the night before All Saints Day, or Todos Santos, when the souls of the dead come back to visit.
Preparing the Tombstones
For a week or so prior to Day of the Dead in Bolivia, people prepare their family’s tombs in the local cemetery. The maintenance of cemeteries in Bolivia is generally done by families throughout the year, rather than by cemetery staff. For Day of the Dead, families clean the graves, place fresh flowers, and they even plant various plants or trees around the tombstones. Sometimes they paint or make repairs. They also place colorful plastic wreaths on the tombstones like these:
This one was decorated in colors of the deceased’s favorite soccer team:
Offering Tables At Home
Once the tombs are prepared at the cemetery, most Bolivians prepare a small offering table in their homes for the souls of their departed loved ones to enjoy. Here is a simple table my wife prepared in our home for her dad, who passed fifteen years ago:
This table has some traditional cakes and cookies that are baked only for Day of the Dead. It also has some coca leaves, a cigarette, singani (an alcohol made from grapes), and some candies. Traditionally, Bolivians put foods and drinks on the table that the deceased particularly liked. The journey from the afterworld is believed to be quite long and tiring, and the souls are happy to quench their hunger and thirst.
Offerings For Recently Deceased
In houses where loved ones have more recently passed away, the offering tables are typically more involved. Here are two examples:
These tables have some of the favorite meals of the deceased, as well as a variety of drinks, cakes, cookies. You can see that both have cookies that are shaped somewhat like ladders. These are meant to facilitate the ascension of the dead souls back to heaven after their 24 hours on Earth.
The tables also have cookies shaped like gingerbread men. These are “tantawawas”, which means “bread babies” in quechua. These are a carry-over from Inca tradition, which are meant to symbolize the memory of the deceased.
The offerings for the recently deceased typically take a lot of time to prepare. You cannot just buy those cookies in stores. You have to make them from scratch. So, families usually bake for days in before they prepare the table on the morning of November 1st. Once the table is prepared, they are then ready to receive the souls of their departed loved ones.
When The Dead Arrive
At noon on November 1st (All Saints Day, Todos Santos), the souls of the dead arrive. In the afternoons and throughout the night of November 1st, Bolivians spend time in the cemetery. They light candles on the tombs, bring blankets, drinks, snacks, and they hang out for hours, often until the wee hours of the morning. They often talk about the deceased, remembering good times. I can’t imagine a holiday in the U.S. where families hang out in cemeteries all night long.
Bolivians in this part of the country typically drink a coffee and alcohol mix to help stay warm and awake at the cemetery. The drinking stays very low-key and melancholy. The cemetery is full of people drinking and talking by candle light, but it stays oddly quiet – and quite peaceful. Most people go home not long after midnight, but some folks stay up until the sunrise.
November 2nd is Dia de los Difuntos, or Day of the Dead. There is a Catholic mass in the cemetery early in the morning:
After mass, people return to town to visit the offering tables in the homes of the recently deceased. Neighbors and friends are welcomed into their homes to pray at the offering table. After a short prayer, the host family gives the visitors a drink and a small gift of traditional breads and cookies like this:
Everyone lingers for a few minutes to remember and talk about the deceased – much in the way it is often done at a funeral or wake. By noon on November 2nd, the souls of the deceased have returned to the after-world, the offering tables are removed, and the holiday is over.
Day of the Dead in Bolivia
I thought Day of the Dead in Bolivia was fascinating. It is not like any other holiday I have experienced. Holidays in the U.S. are always about being happy and celebrating, maybe with the possible exception of Memorial Day. But even that is as much about celebrating, vacationing, and barbecuing as it is about remembering.
It’s interesting comparing our own Halloween to Day of the Dead. While they both came from the same original tradition, they are today completely different. Halloween in the U.S. is about kids, candy, frights, fun, and recently, over-the-top consumerism. Day of the Dead, on the other hand is about remembering and celebrating your loved ones, infused in tradition and religion.
We don’t really have any holidays quite like Day of the Dead, which is somber, melancholy, and intimate. Day of the Dead in Bolivia is perhaps more akin to a funeral or wake, but without the sudden shock and pain of death. I thought it was a very good way to remember loved ones and to celebrate their lives.
Go here to read more about our family’s travels and experiences in Bolivia.