Day of the Dead: Altars and Celebration at Vernon Hills!

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Written by Susana Cardenas-Soto, with Marketing at GCNWI

On Saturday, November 2, Girl Scouts of all ages joined together at the Vernon Hills Gathering Place to celebrate an age-old tradition dating back to the reign of the Aztecs: Día de Los Muertos, or, in English, the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead certainly sounds grim, but in reality, this multi-day Mexican holiday is meant to be a joyous remembrance of our lost loved ones. It is believed that during these first days of November, their spirits return to the world of the living for a visit. The holiday, then, is much like a “welcome home” party for our ancestors. It is a colorful and spirited celebration of life, not the mourning of loss.

Día de Los Muertos is a holiday near and dear to my own heart, especially as a first-generation Mexican-American. I have always felt that The Day of the Dead is an alternative to grief, a hopeful method of remembrance, a time to meant celebrate the lives of people who have passed on, whether they were a dear family member or a beloved celebrity. It was a very special experience to see so many local Girl Scouts take part in a cultural celebration dedicated to honoring their ancestors.

¡Bienvenidos a la Fiesta!

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Girls gathered up early in the afternoon at the Vernon Hills Gathering Place to start building their shoebox ofrendas, or altars, to honor the memory of someone who passed away. These altars are traditionally laden with marigold flowers, religious candles, incense, photos of the person, favorite foods and books, and other special objects, all meant to comfort the soul and help them on their spiritual journey.

These girls came prepared with a lot to display: large boxes to build multi-level altars, colorful streamers, old family photos, candles, delicious snacks, and other bright decorations. All of these items were lovingly collected to honor the people of their choice, whether they were a favorite author or a great-great-grandpa. Together with friends, family, and troop leaders, these girls built their ofrendas with care.

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Renata and her troop’s ofrenda. 

I talked to some Girl Scouts around the room and found they had quite a large knowledge of the significance of the holiday. Renata, a Junior Girl Scout who self-identified as Azteca, told me about the indigenous Aztec roots of the holiday and the long history of honoring the dead. Her troop built a particularly impressive and brightly colored multi-level ofrenda honoring their great-grandparents and several inventors they admire (like the inventor of the brownie, Fannie Farmer). Their altar was not just built to celebrate the tradition of Día de Los Muertos, but the traditions within each of their individual families and as a Girl Scout troop.

This troop’s altar (image above) was a very classic interpretation of an ofrenda and featured papel picado (intricately cut colored tissue paper) meant to attract the spirits, statues of skeletons and La Catrina to provide familiarity, and candles to light the path from the underworld for the departed to return for the get-together. They also featured a statue of La Virgen Guadalupe, signifying the Catholic aspects of the holiday.

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Other Junior Girl Scouts Cassandra and Tanner told me about the meaning behind some of the objects they brought for their altar, dedicated to their great-grandparents. Surrounding the pictures of their family members were some of their grandpa’s and GiGi’s favorite treats: Andes mints, Krispy Kreme Pecan pies, chocolate orange slices, and frosted cookies. Each item had an emotional significance to the girls and their mothers and connected to a special family memory, whether it was eating delicious Sunday breakfasts or fresh-baked Thanksgiving cookies.

Food is a particularly important part of an ofrenda, but not for eating. No family get-together is good without everyone’s favorite foods––by placing these objects at the altar, it signifies a welcoming feeling for the departed spirits. It is a gift from the living, a slice of home.

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Charlottes British orfenda.

One particularly intricate altar was dedicated to the memory of British children’s book author Enid Blyton, built by Girl Scout Junior Charlotte. The altar was a different cultural interpretation of the ofrenda and held classically British items: the Union Jack, tea, and what appears to be a plate of crumpets, as well as copies of Charlotte’s favorite Blyton books. Charlotte told me she chose Blyton because she felt connected to her, not just because she is her favorite author but because they are from the same country.

What united each altar, whether they were dedicated to family or strangers, was that they were built in order to honor and comfort the one who had passed. It was very touching to see girls building altars for grandparents and great-grandparents they had never met, solely because they knew how much their parents loved them and wanted to preserve those memories. Indeed, the building of an ofrenda is a decidedly intergenerational project, one that requires of its builders to acknowledge and honor those who came before.

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Calaveras y Cempasuchiles

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The girls also participated in some traditional Day of the Dead activities: decorating sugar skull (calaveras) cookies, fashioning paper Marigolds (Cempasuchil), and more! The room was filled with Girl Scouts and covered in papel picado, skull decorations, paper Cempasuchiles, and traditional Mexican music played from a speaker. It was exactly how a Day of The Dead party should be!

Together with their families, friends, and leaders, Girl Scouts made all sorts of crafts: paper flower headbands, homemade windsocks, and straw panflutes, to name a few. Older Girl Scouts met with an artist and were walked through the process of painting La Catrina, the skeleton of a beautiful woman and a very famous symbol for the holiday and of the Mexican Revolution.

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All of these fun activities have real significance in the centuries-old tradition of Día de Los Muertos. Skulls were once keepsakes for Aztec warriors to remember the dead–– now, sweet sugar skulls are decorated with tons of edible glitter, paint, and beads, and sport big smiles. Marigolds were once thought to guide the spirits back to their homes with their intense colors and pungent smells, so these flowers became integral parts of the ofrendas.

The atmosphere in the Vernon Hils Gathering Place that afternoon was exactly what you should expect for a celebration of the Day of The Dead: full of smiles, laughter, bright colors, delicious treats. Awesome memories were made, memories that are sure to live on through this generation of Girl Scouts and the next.

¡Girl Scout yo soy!

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This event was very special, not only because it was a bunch of fun for everyone involved, but because it was a celebration of the immense diversity of our Girl Scouts. Cultural events like these are essential for girls of all backgrounds to respect and honor diverse world traditions, learn and understand various perspectives, connect with our global community, and promote solidarity between nations.

We are so grateful to everyone who helped put on both this and the event at Joliet!

Interested in our other awesome cultural events and programs? Our programs page is a great place to start!

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