Campus organizations celebrate Dia de los Muertos

On Nov. 1 and 2, the streets of Mexico will brim with celebrations of Dia de los Muertos — literally meaning “Day of the Dead” — with colorful papel picado decorations, giant parade floats, face painting, mariachi bands and traditional dancing. 

Dia de los Muertos originated in Mexico, although it is widely celebrated in the Mexican diaspora globally to commemorate loved ones who have passed away. Nov. 1 honors children who have passed away, while Nov. 2 commemorates adults. The holiday is a joyous celebration rather than one of mourning, according to a talk by Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) faculty fellow Jenny Padilla. 

“The centerpiece of Dia de los Muertos is remembering your loved ones who have passed, remembering the life they lived and sharing your stories with other family members,” Denise Brenes, assistant director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS) said.

Emily Meneses, vice president of the Spanish language choir Coro Primavera, said that during this time, many believe the dead come closer to the living. It is a day to honor friends and family who have passed away, she said. 

The ILS hosted a community gathering Tuesday to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. The event featured traditional Mexican food and a display of altars created by student groups. Padilla spoke at the event about the origins of the holiday and traditions associated with Dia de los Muertos.

She discussed how families create and decorate altars to honor their loved ones who have passed. The altars are set up in homes and cemeteries and contain photographs, flowers and ofrendas — or offerings. 

“The altars are decorated with offerings that are meant to represent the four elements: fire, water, wind and earth,” Padilla said. 

She explained how the different elements are incorporated into the altars. Fire is represented by candles that light the way for the spirits to return to their families. Pitchers of water are placed on the altars to quench the spirits’ thirst. The wind is represented by papel picado — intricately cut papers that help the souls pass through. Earth is represented by traditional foods, like pan de muerto, hot chocolate and tamales. 

Padilla explained that marigolds are the holiday’s iconic flower. The altars are decorated with bright orange and yellow flowers because the fragrance is said to help guide the spirits from their burial place. 

La Catrina, the elegant skull, is another symbol associated with the holiday and it is seen in costumes, face paintings and candy skulls. It originated as a satirical lithograph in the 1910s by Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada. 

The two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos aligns with All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2,  days of prayer and remembrance observed by Christian denominations. 

Dia de los Muertos was originally an Aztec tradition celebrated during the summer harvest season.

“The origins of Dia de los Muertos date back to the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America and the idea is that death and the dead are to be celebrated and honored rather than mourned,” Padilla said.   

It wasn’t until the 16th century, during the Spanish colonization of Mexico, that the dates of the holiday changed. Brenes explained that after colonization, holidays involving pagan traditions or rituals were incorporated into Catholic celebrations, so today’s celebration of Dia de los Muertos contains an amalgamation of pre-Hispanic traditions and Christian religion.

Meneses discussed the intersection between the two traditions.“We celebrate Dia de los Muertos because we honor the saints, and so from a religious perspective, they can intercede for us and bring us closer to the deceased,” she said.

A holiday that is mistaken as having ties to Dia de los Muertos is Halloween. Padilla clarified that although Halloween and Dia de los Muertos “occur in tandem and [though they] share similar customs like candy, face painting and community gatherings, the two are not related.”

To mark the second day of Dia de los Muertos on Wednesday, Campus Ministry is holding a procession at 7 p.m. from the Cedar Grove Cemetery culminating in a prayer service at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Following the service, there will be a reception in the Coleman-Morse lounge where student clubs including Ballet Folklorico Azul y Oro (BFAYO), RitmoND, Coro Primavera and Mariachi ND will be performing. 

Arianna Kelley, diversity council representative of BFAYO, said the group will be performing typical Mexican folkloric dances and painting their faces like skulls. Coro Primavera and Mariachi ND will be leading songs that will be sung during the procession from the cemetery to the Basilica. Coro Primavera will be singing “Un pueblo que camina” — which translates to “a town that walks.” “It’s a really great song to show how a community can move itself and spiritually uplift each other,” Meneses said.

You can contact Caroline Collins at


From the Archives: Creepy tales and cultural traditions

With this week’s edition falling on October 31, we felt obligated to write about Halloween. For those currently imbued with the holiday spirit, the following stories about campus ghosts, ouija sessions and seances will not disappoint.

But we also wanted to look beyond “spooky season” stereotypes. The blurbs below consider the transformation of Halloween from its pagan origins, pondering the lost significance of the original “All Hallows Eve.” We also feature some other holidays occurring in late October. Diwali and Dia de los Muertos represent important ethnic traditions whose cultural depth contrasts with the seemingly-frivolous nature of modern Halloween. While costume parties and ghost stories are always entertaining, it is important to consider the deeper meaning of this season for certain people in the tri-campus community and around the world.

Campus lore and the ghost of Washington Hall

Oct. 31, 1988 | Julie Ryan | Oct. 31, 2006 | Joe Piarulli | Researched by Cade Czarnecki

Over time, there have been many eerie reports of paranormal activity at the building situated between the Dome and LaFortune Student Center. Doors slamming, lights turning off and transparent silhouettes entering the building comprise only a few of the spooky tales about Washington Hall’s ghost.

Campus lore contains numerous possible identities for the supernatural being that haunts Washington Hall. One tale tells of a steeplejack who fell to his death from the roof while helping to construct the hall. Another tells of a cavalry soldier that was killed by Native Americans and buried on the sacred native land that the Notre Dame campus now stands upon.

The most prominent and widely accepted attribution of the haunting of Washington Hall, though, is to the ghost of George Gipp, a football player in the early 1900s under then-head coach Knute Rockne.

The origin of Ghost of the Gipper stems from a commonly echoed story that Gipp would often sneak into Washington Hall when he had missed curfew and could not return to his residence.

On one such night, Gipp could not get inside Washington Hall and resorted to sleeping on its steps. He contracted pneumonia as a result of the harsh conditions of South Bend, Indiana and later succumbed to the disease.

The first reported sighting of the Ghost of the Gipper was in 1925, five years after Gipp’s death. Many more stories followed in subsequent years.

Tom Barkes, Washington Hall’s manager in 1988, saw the stories as both fun and natural to the hall’s lifespan: “No self-respecting 107 year old theater should be without its ghost stories. Theater is magic to begin with, so it is a natural place for stories.”

An illustration depicts students interacting with a ouija board inside Washington Hall, hoping to contact the legendary Ghost of the Gipper. Observer archives, Oct. 31, 1988.

Others take them far more seriously, such as the group of four students who snuck into Washington Hall with an ouija board in 1985. They attempted to contact the Ghost of the Gipper only to have the board spell out “S…G” and then slide the planchette to “Goodbye.” After a second attempt that garnered the same result, the students hurried out of the hall. A security guard (SG) was seen making his rounds as they snuck out.

Such Notre Dame lore has persisted for hundreds of years and is sure to continue into the future. The question now is simply when, not if, the ghost of George “The Gipper” Gipp will next be seen in his old sanctuary, Washington Hall.

Halloween: horrifying or hilarious?

Oct. 31, 1988 | Mark Ridgeway | Oct. 31, 1991 | Paige SmoronOct. 30, 1996 | Dan Cichalski | Researched by Lilyann Gardner

Even as the Ghost of the Gipper captured the imaginations of some students, the spirit of Halloween and its holiday traditions were a topic of debate at Notre Dame throughout the late 1980s and well into the 90s. 

Dan Cichalski (‘98), Assistant Accent Editor, took a strong stance in favor of making Halloween an official national holiday, arguing that it would establish a day in which everyone would be able to celebrate those who have passed away while also allowing themselves to be someone or something else for a short while.  

“With Halloween officially recognized by the government though, people in such positions would be able to let their fun side go wild,” wrote Cichalski. 

Conversely, Mark Ridgeway (‘89), Systems Manager, argued that the meaning of Halloween had been lost. Ridgeway claimed that the celebration of the deceased surrounding All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints Day had been overrun by a dark side of violence, gore and evil. 

Morbid curiosity and the thrill of adrenaline that stemmed from watching horror films and attempting to commune with ghosts have cast the origins of Halloween into the shadows, according to Ridgeway. 

“As an adult, looking at the way Halloween is today, I feel the true meaning of the night has been lost, but that the fun of the celebration has not been lost,” Ridgeway wrote.

Mark Ridgeway’s column criticized the evolution of Halloween from its roots as “All Hallows Eve,” a pagan celebration of the deceased. Observer archives, Oct. 31, 1988.

The Observer and the University of Notre Dame were sure to maintain the playful nature of Halloween with dorm decorations, pumpkin carving competitions and hypothetical seances. 

Paige Smoron (‘92), Assistant Accent Writer, interviewed students and faculty in 1991 to see which famous spirits should be conjured up at a Halloween seance.

Elvis was at the top of the list, and other notable figures included Marilyn Monroe, Knute Rockne, Nikola Tesla, Caspar the friendly ghost and Jesus Christ. However, some students refused to entertain the notion of a seance at all due to its pagan origins. 

The moral meaning behind these Halloween traditions at Notre Dame may still be up in the air, but there is no denying that remembering the dead plays a role in more ways than one. 

 Beyond Halloween: Diwali and Dia De Los Muertos at Notre Dame

 Oct. 30, 1997 | Bernadette Pampuch | Nov. 10, 2014 | Paul Stevenson | Researched by Thomas Dobbs

Halloween may garner the most on-campus attention this season, but autumn also marks a time to consider celebrations that hold deeper spiritual and religious significance.

In order to emphasize global religious events on campus, in 2004 Campus Ministry began the Prayer from Around the World series to offer “the opportunity for various faith traditions to share their forms of praying with the campus communities.”

One such holiday, Diwali, is a major five-day Hindu festival occurring in October or November that celebrates the “triumph of good over evil, light over dark and knowledge over darkness.”

Nishant Singh (‘17) recalled eating candies and sweets during the Diwali festival as a child but emphasized that “Diwali is much bigger than Halloween. It is like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years combined into one.”

As evidence of Diwali’s broad significance, Priscilla Wong, senior advisor at the graduate and multicultural student ministry, shared that she felt connected to Diwali despite not practicing Hinduism. Wong described celebrations of Diwali at friends’ houses and with her daughter’s Hindu spouse.

A member of the Indian Association of Notre Dame celebrates Diwali, an ancient Hindu festival “like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years combined into one.” Observer archives, Nov. 10, 2014.

While the sense of community is clear in Diwali celebrations, familial connections form the foundation of another autumnal holiday: Dia de los Muertos. Celebrated on the first and second of November, Dia de los Muertos may at first resemble Halloween with its elaborate displays of skulls or candy offerings.

But unlike Halloween, Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday centered on reflection and the remembrance of “departed ancestors whose spirits visit the earth once each year.” Some celebrate by setting up altars in their homes to welcome their ancestors, while entire families can “spend the day cleaning and repainting graves, decorating tombstones with flowers.”

Although fire precautions, untrustworthy roommates or engineering shortcomings may limit the construction of an altar here on campus, one can celebrate Dia de los Muertos with a simple “prayer [or moment of remembrance] for a deceased family member.”

While Halloween parties and costume contests provide for an uncomplicated and amusing holiday, the concurrent celebrations of Diwali and Dia de los Muertos elicit meaningful celebrations of family and renewal that are closely connected to the rituals themselves.

Contact Spencer Kelly at

Cade Czarnecki at

Lilyann Gardner at

Thomas Dobbs at