By Tessa Raebeck
For most of us, skulls are scary, but for some Sag Harbor residents, they’re candy. Decorating candy skulls is a favored tradition of those who celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican festival honoring those who have passed.
Despite its name, Day of the Dead is far from spooky. Unlike Halloween, it is a holiday of commemoration, not commotion. The dead are not feared; they are celebrated.
“It takes the spooky out of it and shows that it’s a little bit more about honoring those who have passed rather than trying to scare people away,” said Josh Perry, the newly appointed director of the family department at Hampton Library in Bridgehampton.
Under Perry’s direction, Hampton Library will host its first Día de los Muertos program this Friday.
“The idea was to do a program for what we consider bridge kids, eight to 12 year olds,” explained Perry. “I wanted to offer something that was culturally diverse, instead of just the traditional Halloween.”
Children are invited to come learn about the holiday, listen to a short story about it and decorate their own candy skulls with paint, glitter and other provided materials. Although it’s aimed at the “bridge kids,” younger children who are capable of decorating their own skulls are also welcome.
“Really just socializing, hanging out and creating” is what kids can expect, according to Perry, who hopes to generate interest from the older kids with more diverse programming.
“We just wanted to create something that was cool and talk about it and expose the kids to maybe something that they’ve never heard before or never knew anything about,” he said.
Sag Harbor’s Ken Dorph was first exposed to the skulls in the 1990s when he spent time working in Mexico City
“This concept of celebrating death in the fall is pretty universal in the northern hemisphere,” explains Dorph.
Halloween began as an ancient Celtic harvest festival, a celestial holiday at the halfway point between the equinox and the solstice. Native Americans — in particular, the Aztecs — independently started their own annual celebration to honor the dead, Día de los Muertos, due to these same celestial roots. When the Spanish conquistadors invaded the Americas in the 16th century, they brought with them the Catholic customs and traditions of All Souls’ Day, a commemoration of the dead celebrated on November 2. Also observed on November 2, Día de los Muertos today has influences from Catholic practices as well as Aztec and Native American traditions.
“It’s not like Halloween,” explained Dorph. “Like, ‘Ahh!’ It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going to see Grandma.’ People have a great time, there’s nothing spooky.”
Although many Day of the Dead celebrations take place in graveyards, they resemble a picnic more than they do a haunted house. After dark, families and friends gather food and drink, candles, marigolds and their homemade candy skulls and visit the graves of deceased family members. They tell stories about those who have passed and celebrate their lives.
“We go usually with the gringos,” Dorph says of his family’s Día de los Muertos celebrations at Sag Harbor’s Oakland Cemetery. In addition to food and marigolds, they bring hot chocolate and make sure all skulls are bio-degradable.
Although Dorph, his friends and the local Mexican-American population celebrate Día de los Muertos in full force, many local residents are ignorant of the festivities. Perry is excited for the opportunity to teach others about the colorful candy skulls and the philosophy that death is not something to be feared, but is instead a natural transition in life.
“I’m looking forward to exposing kids to something a little different,” he said. “It’s just a day to celebrate the dead and, I guess, a day of remembrance.”
Hampton Library will host its Día de los Muertos celebration on Friday, November 1 from 4 to 5 p.m. at 2478 Main Street in Bridgehampton. Call 631-537-0015 or visit hamptonlibrary.org for more information.