The Arts Council of Princeton is honored to have hosted our community’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations for more than 20 years. This year is extra special: we’ve expanded our offerings to include free folk art workshops, lecture, screening, a public altar in our Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, a community-wide celebration, and this public art installation on view throughout the month of November. 

Día de los Muertos​, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November. It originated and is mainly observed in Mexico, but has also grown in popularity in the United States. Although associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day, it has a much less solemn tone and is portrayed as a holiday of joyful celebration rather than mourning. The multi-day holiday involves family and friends gathering to pay respects to loved ones who have died. 

Day of the Dead gatherings are joyful events where folks gather to remember funny anecdotes about the departed and to the cemetery to clean headstones and host picnics. Other traditions include honoring the deceased using calaveras (skulls) and marigold flowers known as cempazúchitl, building altars called ofrendas with the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these items as gifts for the deceased. The celebration is not solely focused on the dead, as it is also common to give gifts to friends such as candy sugar skulls, to share traditional pan de muerto with family and friends, and to write the departed names as a remembrance that honors their memory. 

In celebrating Day of the Dead, one is celebrating the cycle of life, appreciating the traditions of an ancient culture, and honoring those who came before us.

Some of the traditional items featured here in Dohm Alley include:

PAPEL PICADO

Intricately cut papel picado are traditionally made in Mexico using a sharp chisel with a variety of patterns and used to decorate buildings, Day of the Dead altars, and streets during secular and religious celebrations. The delicate nature of the paper is symbolic of the fragility of life and the wind. Here in Dohm Alley these ‘papel picados’ are plastic to endure rain and wind.

MARIGOLDS

Native to Mexico, they are known as Cempazúchitl flowers, meaning “flower with many petals”, and were used by the Aztecs in funerals and ancient celebrations of Day of the Dead. It is commonly referred to as “flowers of the dead” (flor de muerto), as it’s believed that the scent of these bright orange blooms help attract souls to the altar. Other flowers used to decorate altars, graves, and arches are the Celosia, or Cockscomb, which are hanging here from the ceiling. 

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES AND THE DAY OF THE DEAD 

For thousands of years, monarch butterflies make the long, annual trip from Canada and the United States to spend their winter hibernation in the forests of central Mexico. This journey, spanning more than 2,500 miles, takes up to three months to complete, and their arrival coincides with the celebrations of Day of the Dead in Mexico every November. According to ancient Aztec mythology, the monarch butterflies represent the spirit of the loved ones who have died and are returning for a visit.