The name is certainly spooky: The Day of the Dead.
But as eerie as it may sound, the Mexican event that takes place every fall is not meant to be frightening. Rather, it’s steeped in a rich, cultural tradition, and has very little to do with the American concept of Halloween.
“At first, it could look a little weird and creepy,” admits Gabriela Gonzalez-Lamberson, a Brookhaven resident who directs the Institute of Mexico, the nonprofit cultural arm of the Mexican consulate in Buckhead. “So someone might ask, ‘Why are you putting up a photo of your dead grandmother?’”
The answer to that and many other questions will be provided Oct. 28 during the Atlanta History Center’s annual Day of the Dead Festival. From noon to 5 p.m., the free outdoor event will showcase the music, food and culture of Mexico. And it will explain the significance of building memorial altars to those who have died.
“The altars are a way for family, friends and neighbors to come together and celebrate someone’s life in a very positive, loving way,” explained Gonzalez-Lamberson, who is coordinating the festival.
“In Mexico, these altars are built at the actual cemeteries where people will have vigils for several nights. Each altar is usually decorated with elements linked to the person; if they loved a certain kind of sweet, you might put that dessert for their spirit to enjoy. And yes, there will be photos of someone’s dead grandmother, but it’s not at all creepy. It’s about celebrating the people who have passed, which makes it a little different from Halloween – it’s not haunted houses and bloody skeletons.”
The institute has hosted a Day of the Dead celebration for the last 10 years at the Atlanta History Center, and each year about 3,000 people attend to learn about the custom. The live music and other accompanying programs are designed to give visitors from all backgrounds insight into Mexican traditions.
“It’s very important for the Mexican population here, especially children who weren’t born in Mexico, but are learning the traditions and language,” said Gonzalez-Lamberson. “But it also shows the non-Hispanic the richness of the culture and what we have in common.”
Along with an elaborate display of commemorative altars, the festival features dance and music performances from different regions of Mexico by local and visiting artists. Artisans will showcase various works interpreting Day of the Dead traditions, and an array of food stations will offer traditional foods at nominal prices.
“We really want to make this an event where people can enjoy a variety of Mexican foods such as blue maize corn or traditional Day of the Dead breads,” said Gonzalez-Lamberson. “It’s not Taco Bell!”