Say the word "Halloween" and people picture ghosts, ghouls and goblins, but speak the phrase "D? de los Muertos," and the image is completely different.

Any mention of the traditional Mexican holiday — "Day of the Dead" in English — is more likely to conjure images of smiling skeletons sitting around a table playing cards, or dancing beneath the leafy branches of a tree in a graveyard.

While the Halloween tradition is all about scary visitations from beyond the grave, D? de los Muertos is an occasion for the living to remember and celebrate loved ones who have died.

That theme is evident in this year's D? de los Muertos exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center, titled "Arbol de Vidas," or "Tree of Lives." It features artwork by both professional and community artists from Sonoma County and the rest of the Bay Area, said Virginia May, the center's administrative director.

Traditionally, children who have died are honored Nov. 1 and deceased adults on Nov. 2, with altar displays that are often humorous, with sugar skulls and colorfully costumed skeletons.

"This is a common experience we have as human beings, of losing loved ones and coming together to celebrate their lives and our lives," May said. "They're still with us."

Now in its 13th year, the center's annual D? de los Muertos celebration has grown until it lasts almost a month and includes all of Petaluma, with some 80 commemorative altars on display in storefronts scattered around town.

This year's program began on Oct. 5 and continues through Nov. 3, with a grand procession through downtown Petaluma from 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 2. Last year's candlelight procession drew about 4,000 participants and spectators.

"Every year, it gets bigger and bigger," May said. "Partly, it's the passion of our organizers, and they're very careful to involve both Anglos and Latinos. It's very much about cross-cultural collaboration. That's the main goal of our event: to bridge the gap between cultures."

At the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, a Day of the Dead exhibit including work by local artists and community members will be on display from Saturday through Nov. 24 in the museum's upstairs gallery.

"We have three artists creating altars based on their own artistry and traditions, and then we have a community altar," said Cynthia Conway, curator of education at Sonoma County Museum.

The exhibit draws strong support from the local Spanish-speaking community, Conway said, but its audiences goes well beyond that.

"Based on the reservations we get for school tours, this is the most popular exhibition we have," she added. "We have at least one or two tours booked every single day of the exhibit."

Liz Camino-Byers, who is creating an altar for the Sonoma County Museum exhibit, said the growing popularity of El D? de los Muertos reflects greater interaction between different ethnic groups, as well as the lingering effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.

"I believe that Americans have been brought closer together, and mourning the loss of life is more public now," Camino-Byers said.

"As communities cling together to find strength in their loss, and as they become more culturally diverse, these altars, and celebrations of the lives of those lost, are helping many families to heal," she said.

The opening celebration for the altar exhibit runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 1, with the museum's "Family Day and Day of the Dead Celebration" running from noon to 3 p.m. Nov. 2.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</i>