Looking at all the Halloween decorations in our neighborhood yesterday, my daughter points to the 1,657th fake gravestone with “R.I.P.” etched on the front and asks, “Why do people do that?” “Because,” I say, “it’s scaaaary.” “It’s not scary,” she says. “It’s sad. People die, and it’s sad.” I laughed at her insight, but now that I’ve been researching the “Day of the Dead” (which begins today! Happy Day of the Dead!), I realize I missed an opportunity for what could have been a pretty fascinating talk about death. In other words, I blew it. Not the first time. Death is one of those subjects that can trigger a million emotions. Sadness is one, but so is fear, anxiety, guilt, excitement, love and even laughter. I know laughter seems out of place — my daughter would give me one of those “Mom, that’s crazy talk” looks if she were here — but it’s true. And we need look no further than the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) to see that. Although based on a rather serious idea, honoring our dead loved ones, the Day of the Dead has been infused with sheer, unadulterated fun for thousands of years. Gifts for the dead? Yes! Candy skulls, face paint and costumes? Check. Parties and dancing? Most definitely. That’s not to say the meaning is lost. Not at all. The Day of the Dead is still a time to think about lost loved ones; wash and decorate grave sites; build shrines to the dearly departed. Often, the shrines include things that the dead people loved or enjoyed during their lives — which is probably why tequila gets poured on top of so many gravestones. This is all kind of genius when you think about it. It gives us a chance to pay homage to people’s lives, rather than focus on their deaths. It associates death with positive memories, not tears. It encourages us to stay connected to the dead in ways that make us feel good, not bad. It’s all incredibly healthy-sounding, isn’t it?
Of course, all this — as well as Halloween — now carry religious connotations, as they are celebrated in conjunction with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 1 and 2).
Halloween is literally translated as “All Hallow’s Eve” or “All Saint’s Eve,” which refers to All Saint’s Day (which is today! Happy All Saint’s Day!). This is a mostly Catholic holiday honoring all dead saints, as opposed to all the days scattered throughout the year that celebrate individual saints (St. Patrick, St. Valentine, etc). All Soul’s Day is tomorrow (Happy All Soul’s Eve! Okay, now this is getting ridiculous…) and celebrates all non-sainted but faithful Christians.
As for how the Day of the Dead became a religious holiday, the Arizona Republic offers the brief but fascinating back story here.
More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls… The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth. The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. “The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.” However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan. In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual. But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die. To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.
Religious or not, I would love love love it if people would include me in their Day of the Dead rituals after I die. Just for the record, though, I prefer scotch over tequila. P.S. Thanks to my photographer-friend Veronica Jauriqui for her amazing photos from a 2010 Day of the Dead celebration in Los Angeles. This post originally appeared on Nov. 1, 2012.