Todos Santos… All Saints Day


In Bolivia, November 1st is a holiday. It’s called Todos Santos, or All Saints Day. It’s a day to remember and celebrate the lives of those family members that have passed on. We lost my mother-in-law, Frida Pilar, just 4 months ago, so emotions are still raw. My father-in-law flew to Bolivia a few days ago just for this day. They had a huge celebration for hundreds of family members and friends. He emailed us some photos from the altar that was erected for Pilar on Monday.

The table is arranged in three levels – Alaxpacha (heaven), where the cross is, Ak’apacha (earth), with all the food, and Mank’apacha (hell). Fruits, vegetables, and the favorite dishes of the dead are set out as an offering. A special bread – called “T’ anta Wawa” – is made. In the shape of a small child, it means “bread children” in Aymara, a native language. Beverages include chicha, a fermented corn drink. Bread is also formed into ladders, which the dead use to climb into Heaven, and llamas, which will carry the food. Lots of flowers also adorn the altar. There’s praying and singing, with family and friends coming in and out. After another big meal the next day, the family goes to the cemetery to say farewell. Or something like that…

I honestly had no idea it was such a big deal until my sister-in-law called me a few minutes before 12 on Monday to ask me to open our front door to let the spirit of my mother-in-law in to our home. Really? Okay, no one told me about all this! So I Googled it. I read that the door is supposed to remain open until noon on the following day, until the spirits leave. Um, yeah. It was freezing cold so I compromised with my niece and closed the door after about an hour, cracking open a window just a little instead. (My husband ended up closing the window later that evening. Bah! Humbug!)

I also read that the dinner table is set up with all the foods that the departed family member loved. We were supposed to go to my SIL’s house for dinner, along with other family and friends, so I immediately called her back and asked her if I could bring anything, to which she responded, “Whatever you think my mother would have liked.”

GAH! I freaked out for a bit, madly foraging through my refrigerator and pantry, trying to figure out what dish I would make. I don’t think my mother-in-law even liked my cooking! So I made rice. Boring, ol’ white rice. I know she liked rice.

Maya went to the zoo with some friends that afternoon, and when she got home, the first thing she asked after walking around the house was “Is abuelita’s ghost here yet?” Kind of surreal.

At my SIL’s later that evening, I realized I had misunderstood. A small altar was already set up… she had spent the entire morning making all my mother-in-law’s favorite dishes. I can’t even imagine how painful that must have been for her. The table turned out beautifully… the traditional ladder-shaped bread was there, as were the t’ anta wawas. I apologize for the bad quality photo; I took it with a cellphone.

altar at home

In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a little different. It’s celebrated on November 2nd, and while we do traditionally build an altar, displaying photos, personal items, and the favorite foods of the departed, it’s not quite as involved as the Bolivian customs. At least in Northern Mexico, where most of my family lives… perhaps it’s due to their close proximity to the United States. My Mexican cousins actually dress up for Halloween and go trick or treating, believe it or not! Because I was always in school, I’ve unfortunately never been to Mexico during Day of the Dead celebrations.

These are some close-ups of the first photo above:
closeup of altar

closeup of altar 2

closeup of altar 3

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  1. renee says

    Wow–thanks for sharing. The time and effort put into both altars, the bread ladders, the foods–amazing. A lovely tribute for your mother in law!