Stamp Stories: Day of the Dead

Just For Kids!
 
Four Day of the Dead stamps featuring illustrations of sugar skulls and flowers
Day of the Dead stamps. © USPS, 2021

Join educators from the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian for a book read-aloud and an exploration of the imagery and traditions of the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead | Día de los Muertos.

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Únase a los educadores del Museo Postal Nacional y del Museo Nacional del Indígena Americano para leer un libro y explorar las imágenes y tradiciones de la celebración mexicana del Día de Muertos.

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Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.

Carrie: And I’m Carrie from the National Museum of the American Indian.

Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about the celebration from Mexico called the Day of the Dead – Día de los Muertos.

Carrie: I’m so happy to be here today to talk about this because I am a first generation Indigenous Mexican American born and raised in Nueva York – New York City. One of the most important celebrations my family maintains and practices is Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Día de los Muertos is celebrated on October 31, November 1st  and November 2nd and has its origins in indigenous cultures of Mexico and Central and South America. It is a time for families to remember those who have passed away. The celebrations are different from place to place and they include altares and similar ofrendas or offerings.  Let’s read a book to learn a little bit more about it.

Maureen: Día de los Muertos by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, illustrated by Carles Ballesteros. Special thanks to Albert Whitman and Company for permission to use this book.

It’s Día de los Muertos, the sun’s coming round, as niños prepare in each pueblo and town. For today we will honor our dearly departed with celebraciónes – it’s time to get started.

At home we’ve adorned our altares with care. They’re heaped with recuerdos and good things to share…

Sweet calaveras, so sugary white – they give toothy smiles, but never a fright.

A black-and-white photo of Grandpa Padilla, who’s riding on horseback just like Pancho Villa! And toys for remembering small angelitos, a train and a dollhouse are both favoritos.

Then off to the graveyard we head with ofrendas and colorful blankets to make meriendas. We carry incensio and velas to burn that will guide spirits back for their yearly return.

And bursts of calendulas, fragrant and bright – the color of sunsets and gold candlelight. A path of pétalos will help lead our guest to pillows and blankets for taking a rest.

Carrie: Above we hang streamers of papel picado that wave in the breeze like a rainbow pintado. We giggle at paper-cut banners we like – esqueletos riding a horse cart or bike.

We share in the foods that our guests loved to eat – fresh fruit and tamales, a holiday treat.
And clay pots of Grandmother’s fresh chicken stew, with mugs of atole, a chocolaty brew.
But everyone’s favorite is sugary bread, called pan de muerto, with bones of the dead,
that offers our travelers a much-needed snack from the weary viaje that brought them all back.

Then after lunch comes the part we love most – putting on makeup to dress like a ghost!

In veils and costumes we join the parade. Although we wear huesos, no one is afraid. Gilberto has scars and a special corona. Anabel looks like the real La Llorona. Joaquin’s snow-white barba sweeps down to the floor, while Luz looks like someone we’ve all seen before!

And just as the marigold clouds end the day, dancers and musicos come out to play. They wear special shells that go clickety-clack, to wake up espiritus, calling them back. As candle flames glisten, our smiles are bright. Our ancestros know we are with them tonight. They return to their world without sadness or fear, knowing they’ll stay in our hearts till next year.

This book gives us a great introduction to Día de los Muertos. Now, I will share some images on how the National Museum of the American Indian celebrates Día de los Muertos.

Most families build and decorate altares with ofrendas, which are offerings, in their homes, community centers, cemeteries, and other meaningful places. 

Colorful altares honor the spirit and memory of past loved ones with photos, personal belongs, and their favorite food or drinks.

Let’s look closely at a few altares made by indigenous community members and artists at the National Museum of the American Indian. 

Although each one of them is different, they all have the similar ofrendas, or offerings.

A few of the ofrendas you may find or see in altares are:

Calaveras and sugar skulls are very important in ofrendas, in the altares.

Sugar skulls in particular are made from a sugar paste called alfeñique. Sugar represents the sweetness of life. The skulls represent the sadness of death. Life is sweet and we must enjoy every moment of it.

Papel picado means “punched” or “perforated” paper and is used in many, many celebrations. They are made in different colors, sizes, and designs!

During Día de los Muertos, many altares are decorated with colorful  papel picado made of tissue paper. Hmm. Why tissue paper? Well, tissue paper is fragile and just like life, it doesn’t last very long. 

Cempasuchil is a Nahuatl word, meaning “twenty flowers” or “flower with four hundred lives.” And these flowers have a very strong smell. That smell helps guide the spirits of our loved ones to find their way back home through the smell that is created by these beautiful petals.

Many altars have food and drinks such as tamales, mole, atole, and my personal favorite, Pan de Muerto.

Pan de Muerto is a bread that flavored with anise or cinnamon. I love cinnamon. And the shapes and decorations are different, depending on the region where they are made in Mexico. Some are shaped like humans or like people. Some are circular and decorated with bones on top. Some have icing, and some have also colored sugar on top.

Another really important thing are photos and personal belongings that belonged to the family members, are also present in the altares to honor and remember the special moment of his or her life.

There are also four elements found in these altares.

The copal, which is right in the center of this photograph, is burned to cleanse or heal and also to please or make our loved one's spirit happy. This is the air element.

You also find lots of cups of water, and this represents the element of water. After the long journey, our loved one's spirits are thirsty, so this cup of water helps them quench their thirst.

Earth is also represented by traditional crops and foods made from them, such as atole which is a corn-based drink, tamales that are also made from corn, and mole. Mmmmm. I love me some mole!

And then the last one, the last element is fire, and this one is present in the form of candles. You find many candles on these altares and the candles help light the way home for our loved ones.

And these are some of the objects, some of the ofrendas, that I’m gathering slowly today, and the next couple of days to build my family altar as we do every year. And I go to my local market, and to my local community stores to buy the pan de muerto, to get the candles ready and my copal, and getting that all set up for my family altar.

Maureen: Thanks, Carrie! It was great to learn all about this fascinating celebration and to hear about your personal connection to it! And now we have a postal connection to Día de los Muertos, too! These four stamps were issued by the United States Postal Service on September 30, 2021. It’s the first time the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead | Día de los Muertos has been featured on a postage stamp! The sugar skulls you see here represent a family, with two adults and two children. Traditionally Día de los Muertos is celebrated over several days, with the first day honoring children who have passed away and the second day honoring adults. We can also see some other symbols that are part of the holiday. Do you notice anything that we saw in the book, or that Carrie talked about? I see candles included on these stamps, like the ones that would be placed on the altares as ofrendas, or offerings, honoring those who have passed away. I also see marigolds, which are the most popular flower used in celebrating Día de los Muertos.

Although the stamps were just saw are the first United States stamps to directly feature Día de los Muertos, we can find one of the of the symbols of it on an earlier stamp issue. The postage stamps you see here were issued in 2017 and show the traditional Mexican folk art of papel picado like Carrie showed us. Papel picado started in the Mexican state of Puebla. It’s an art form that evolved over many years from the Aztec practice of carving designs into tree bark to make a type of rough paper called amate.  Papel picado is most commonly used as a decoration for Día de los Muertos but it’s also seen during other celebrations in Mexico, like religious holidays, birthdays, and weddings. The designs often feature birds and flowers, like you see here. The individual sheets of tissue paper are strung together to make a banner that can be hung up almost anywhere to create a festive atmosphere!

Though it’s a first in the United States, the celebration of Día de los Muertos has been honored many times on stamps from Mexico. Here’s one example. It reminds me of the new US stamps with all the colors, and the skeletons, and the flowers and candles.

Let’s look a few more stamps from Mexico. Keep an eye out for all those symbols of Día de los Muertos that we’ve talked about.

I like this one with the skeleton dressed up like a mail carrier! Do you see the mail bag, the uniform hat, and the letter in the skeleton’s hand? It’s a fun and creative way to connect the postal service to the holiday.

All these stamps from Mexico say “Tradiciones Mexicanas” on them, which means “Mexican Traditions” and it reminds us that Día de los Muertos has a long and rich history!

Carrie:  Muchisimas gracias Maureen, y a todas y todos! That was a really fun day to explore the topic of Día de los Muertos with museum objects and a book! To learn more about Día de los Muertos please visit our website: https://americanindian.si.edu

Maureen: Thank you so much, Carrie, and thank you to our audience for joining us today for Stamp Stories. You can learn more about all kinds of traditions and holidays on stamps by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!