Few things put the differences in culture between the United States and Mexico in such stark relief as the contrast between Halloween and the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos). Both have a lineage to the Christian practice of praying for the dead, which dates back to the earliest days of the Church, but have evolved in such different directions as to make them unrecognizable.
Halloween in the States has mostly lost its religious ties. It is a single evening, October 31st. When I was a child, it had already become primarily a children’s holiday involving simple costumes (got a sheet? you’re a ghost), candy (please no fruit!), and sometimes mild anti-social behavior (I swear I have no idea how those pumpkins got smashed, Dad). It remains a children’s holiday today, along with neighbors banding together to put on elaborate haunted house displays and even displaying Halloween lights. But now it is also an adult holiday with big parties and extreme costumes venturing from the risque to the offensive. Some have suggested that the original Halloween was a Christian rip-off of the Celtic Samhain celebration, a harvest/new year event on November 1st. While this is unlikely (the date for the Christian holy day came from Germany, not Ireland), it is uncanny how comfortable a pagan Celt would be out for a night of American Halloween.
Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, has fully retained its original religious significance and developed its own festive spirit. I must admit that watching the festivities from the outside, I was struck by the unusual art, altars, and rituals. What’s with all the skeletons? Food for the dead? Candy skulls? It all seemed more Mexica (you know them as the Aztecs) than Christian.
While the Mexica peoples–like all ancient cultures–had festivals to honor the dead, most of what we see today is imported from the Spanish and then translated by modern Mexico to its own culture. The Spaniards introduced the Christian holy days for the departed to Mexico. November 1st is Dia de los Inocentes/Angelitos, dedicated to little children who have died; November 2nd is the Day of the Dead, where deceased family
members are remembered and honored. Families go to the Panteón (cemetery) and attend to the grave, sharing a meal of the loved one’s favorite snacks or leaving behind mementos of things they liked. Families will often also build an altar (ofrenda) at home or on their street with the same artifacts. Marigolds are often used as decoration. The notion is that the deceased come in spirit and visit with the living, enjoying those things they enjoyed in life.
What about the skeletons? They do trace back to Mexica culture, and a general view of death as inevitable and something to mock, certainly not fear. Skeletons come in two sorts: calaveras and catrinas. Calaveras are fake skulls, often brightly painted or decorated, representing the dearly departed. They can be edible–sugar and chocolate are popular–or made of durable materials like clay. In the 19th century, literary calaveras appeared; they are humorous poems about the living (especially the famous or politicians) reminding them they will one day be dead, like everyone else.
Another recent addition to the celebration started in the early 20th century. The famous Mexican lithographer José Guadalupe Posada made a print of a full length skeleton dressed in then-modern European finery, meant to mock wealthy Mexicans who put on airs. He called his skeleton the Calavera Catrina, and variations of his work have become synonymous with Dia de Muertos.
So we heard no doorbells on Tuesday evening, but on Wednesday and Thursday we did see a procession to the Panteón, some altars, and many Mexicans fondly remembering their departed loved ones. In case you are wondering, the Mexicans we met welcomed us to take pictures, as they were quite proud of their efforts!
Feliz Dia de Muertos!