Day of the Dead

Today, November 2, is known as Day of the Dead in Mexico.  It coincides with the Catholic holiday, All Soul’s Day.  It’s a day of celebration in Mexico and is celebrated by many Mexican Americans as well.

Last year, our boys went to a Spanish bilingual school.  Each year, they celebrated Day of the Dead, and because I have a terrible memory, each year it caught me off guard.

Two years ago, I walked into Zach’s kindergarten room and was startled when I saw the agenda for the day.  I went to talk to the teacher.

“I see you’re doing Day of the Dead today.”

“Oh, don’t worry Tara, it’s nothing religious.”

“Oh.  Because I saw that you are going to make altars to your ancestors.”

“Oh yes, but it’s not religious.”

Where do I start in a response to that?

I loved this teacher, and she was wonderful with both of my boys.  And she was bright, and hardworking, and kind.  But her thought pattern here was hard to figure out. What did she mean by saying that building an altar is not religious? What definition of altar is devoid of a religious or spiritual association?

It reminded me of an exhibit about Vietnam at the Children’s Museum in Boston.  At the one station in the exhibit, there were rocks and other items, and the kids were encouraged to “make an altar to your ancestors.”

I wondered at the time how we might respond if there were an exhibit on Italy and kids were encouraged to pray for relatives who may be in purgatory. Or an exhibit on Jerusalem and kids were encouraged to write prayers and put them in a Wailing Wall model.  The thing is – we would all know that those encouragements would be inappropriate.  Even if you don’t think they are inappropriate, can you imagine them in a museum?

I think the reason that we can encourage kids to build altars at an exhibit on Vietnam or for Day of the Dead is because we think, “Well, of course, it’s not religious.  Everyone knows it’s just a superstition.  Only ignorant people really believe this.”  Or maybe, “We’re just pretending.  It’s fun.  No one would be offended if we were just playing.  With their sacred beliefs.”

Which is patronizing at best.  Racist at worst.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want them to stop celebrating religious holidays in school. The false pluralism where we pretend that everyone is the same is just as patronizing to those whose faith walks are important to them as is having those faiths turned into an arts and crafts project.  I just wanted the school to send a note home, tell me what they were going to do, and give me the option of helping my kids process it or opt out of it if we couldn’t make some kind of accommodation.  I wanted a “messy diversity,” where people bring the best of their thinking and traditions and celebrations to the table, where they celebrate what they have in common, and live with the discomfort and even pain of the places where they don’t.

But instead of fighting for that kind of diversity, I remained silent at the school and talked to the boys about it home.  Now we have no diversity, and I’ve lost my chance to see how it might have worked.


PS – Before everyone with a bone to pick against public schools uses the comment section to rant, let me say again that our school was wonderful in many, many ways.  And the reasons we are homeschooling are not related to this incident. What I’d really love to hear back is whether people out there are part of schools or communities where they practice a “messy diversity.”

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  • Barbara Alexander Pa

    My comment is not about 'messy diversity' but about what I see as a possible cultural/linguistic mistranslation. I don't think that ancestor 'worship' in China is anything like what we think of as religious or even spiritual in the West. Instead, it's more a matter of expressing deep respect and gratitude to one's ancestors for the sacrifices they made for each successive generation. That respect and gratitude is codified in rites and represented concretely in so-called 'altars' that are essentially not much different than our gravestones in a cemetery. Personally, I have never thought of burning incense or bowing to photos of my husband's ancestors as constituting worshiping idols or as being incompatible with belief in God or some supreme being.

    I do think that discussion of these distinctions and the dangers of direct translation should be part of education at home and in school.

    • tedelschick


      Thanks for writing! I feel like I'm in school with you again – which I loved. And your experience of a completely different use of an altar is an important corrective.

      And you're especially right that there is bound to be mistranslation when I write about "Vietnamese altars," as if they mean the same thing to all Vietnamese. But for many Vietnamese DO use the altars in a religious way (at least according to many sites online and one Vietnamese person I talked to years ago). There are often offerings made at the altar when counsel or wisdom is needed. There are traditions in some Asian altar practices where the ancestor is thought to inhabit the body of a family member who is present at the altar to eat the food left for him or her. There are many more examples of the religious uses of altars in ancestor veneration. Now of course, for some Asians this is simply a matter of filial piety, the way it might be for some members of my family to leave a stone on the gravestone of a deceased Jewish family member.

      As for Day of the Dead, it was originally a Mayan custom that the Spaniards tried to wipe out when they introduced Catholicism. When they couldn't get rid of it, they folded it into the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. While for the majority of Mexicans, building the altars, which begins with harvesting beautiful flowers in October, is simply a way to honor the dead. But for many others, they still leave offerings of beautiful flowers and fruits for the dead to enjoy.

      Perhaps a not perfect comparison might be Santa Claus. He was originally a groovy Christian priest who brought presents to poorer children. He's now got an entirely different, secular meaning. But we wouldn't have Santa visit a public school and bring gifts. It would be offensive to faithful Christians who don't celebrate Christmas with Santa Claus and think Santa misses the point entirely. It would be offensive to faithful Muslims who don't want Christmas of any kind privileged. We could go on and on about the way it's offensive. The fact that most American's experience of Santa Claus is now entirely secular doesn't mean that it's appropriate.

      The first year that we were at the school, I was driving the kids to another family's house to celebrate Epiphany, the day when Christians remember the arrival of the Magi and the announcement of a savior to the gentiles. On the way, Zach says, "Oh yeah, the Three Kings came last night and gave us candy."


      "We left out hay and apples, and the Three Kings came on their camels and left us presents."

      No amount of explanation from me could convince him that it was like Santa Claus, just a fun thing that many families pretend even though the adults know it's not true. Again, warming from the school. Again, I would have let Zach participate, but I would have prepared him, explained to him why many people celebrate Christmas and epiphany with this make-believe group of men who give out presents, and let him ask his teachers to tell him the truth if he wasn't sure.

      I definitely should have talked to people about it. I realize more and more all the time how many misunderstandings there are among people who are pretty confident they are all talking about the same thing.

      Thanks again for writing.

      • Barbara Alexander Pa

        And thanks for your textured explanation, much more thoughtful than my broad-stroke response to your original comment. Educating ourselves and our children about cultural and spiritual diversity is really a life-long process. And so late in life, I'm way back near the starting line on this one.