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.