El Dia de los Muertos

I’ve been to Mexico only once—I must remedy that—and quite by chance, my visit coincided with el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead—All Hallows or All Souls’ Day. Halloween is the eve of All Hallows (though I’ll wager that hardly any of the children out trick-or-treating last night know that).

El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on November 2 in Mexico.The dead are believed to return to their earthly homes on that day, so in the couple of days before the holiday itself, families tidy the graves and adorn them with flowers and paper decorations. Candles are lit to help the dead find their way home. On November 2, families gather at the cemeteries to exchange memories and to picnic, sometimes with music.

I was reminded of all this listening to National Public Radio as I drove to work this morning. A Mexican, now resident in the United States, was comparing the dour sadness of American cemeteries with those of his homeland, which are places where life is celebrated, not mourned.

When I was in Mexico City, shop windows were full of exquisitely detailed candy skulls and candy skeletons in coffins. There were elaborate displays of skeleton weddings complete with photographer, skeleton jazz bands, skeleton dentists, skeleon funerals (which seemed somewhat redundant) and so on. There was nothing morbid about any of it.

Halloween goes back a very long way, I learned from the History Channel Web site, where there is a cool video. It started with the Celts, who marked the beginning of winter on November 1. On October 31, Samhain, the spirits of the dead were believed to return to earth and cause trouble, damaging crops. Bonfires were built and animals sacrificed to the gods. The Celts wore costumes to frighten away the malevolent spirits.

In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV named November 1 (later changed by the church to November 2) as a day to honor saints and martyrs—it is surmised, to replace the pagan festival with something more acceptable to the Christian church.

Like so many Christian feasts, All Hallows now mingles pagan customs with Christian. Children (like the Celts) don scary costumes and ask for candy (sacrifices or gifts) so that they will not play tricks (destroy the crops).

One more seasonal post and then we’ll return to my trip to Italy.


2 Responses to El Dia de los Muertos

  1. Dan Ward says:

    Great photo – reminds me of a funny video game my wife and I played a few years ago. It was one of those “wander around and solve puzzles & mysteries” kind of games. All the action took place in a very Mexican land of the dead, all the characters (including the player) were humerously-rendered skeletons. There was wonderful background music, witty dialogue, and great puzzles to solve.

    I wish I could remember the game’s title…

  2. Kate says:

    I’ll be in Mexico for 3 months beginning Jan 7 and looking forward to it. For this November celebration I went to our Hispanic community and got some good shots in a community center there. If interested, visit http://visualstpaul.blogspot.com/2006/11/da-de-los-muertos.html
    Glad I found you again, and I must return to read what I have just skimmed. I’ll be back!!

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