Friday, October 26, 2012


As we approach the end of October and the spectacle of Halloween, it’s time for me to offer my annual condensed primer on high holidays which this year will include Halloween and Dia de los Muertos – the Mexican Day of The Dead. Since they happen to coincide in the same time period, some folks, especially many of Western European descent, think they are one and the same. Reality does reflect that while they do not remotely resemble each other and have completely different purposes, they do share a common element (more later).  

This is a stream of consciousness post so I really don’t want to engage a comprehensive history of the two events except to say that we have choices this time of year.  They are light and life or dark and death.  While Halloween now conjures up macabre demons, spirits and all things that go bump in the night, Dia de los Muertos (DDLM) is a celebration of life and remembrance. The skeleton for DDLM celebrants represents the dead playfully mimicking the living while for Halloween it’s a ghoulish icon. Halloween and all that it invokes ultimately communicates that death is something to be feared while DDLM is a festive occasion which reinforces that death is a part of life prompting a reverence and respect for those who have gone before.  It allows us to connect with the past and while paying homage to our ancestors, giving us a sense of continuity and belonging. 

Halloween didn’t start the way it is “celebrated” today.  Though several theories abound it’s clear to this writer that Halloween had its origins in the ancient harvest/herding festivals, particularly the Celtic Samhain (sow-wane).  Since early societies had a mostly oral history tradition we can only speculate how long it had been celebrated.  It would appear that Samhain or a variant was celebrated centuries before “civilization” arrived.

For the ancient Celts as with most other “primitive” societies, everything revolved around the change of seasons, the forces of nature and the phases of the sun and moon. Samhain was loosely associated with that period from on or around October First to November First of each year – with the timing (as any decent TV meteorologist can tell you today) depending on the first frost and the location and passage of the jet stream.  The passage from the warmth of summer and fall to the cold of winter meant going from the light to the dark side.  So, it was the grand incentive to get ready for the winter – that old ant and grasshopper thing

Well, along come Christian missionaries who, in the fashion of the magnanimous and conversion-minded Pope Gregory the Great (540 CE–604 CE), didn’t want to irk, rather mollify and convert the “Pagans” by incorporating those celebrations into Christian high holidays.  While the Roman Catholics were the new and meanest kids on the block they had been formally celebrating the holy day of All Saints (aka All Hallows) since 609.  However, it took Pope Louis the Pious on or around 835 CE to move the day from May 13 to November 1.  That move formalized and made official what had already been taking place for quite some time and acknowledged Samhain, opening the door to what we now know as Halloween.

Samhain was perceived by the Celts as not only the time of preparation but also that time when the veil between the living and dead (the Otherworld) was closest even to the extent that the souls of the dead, both friendly and not, would be able to come into their realm.  The Friendlies (my term) were treated with respect even to having a place at the dinner table while their living descendants told, we assume, polite and reverential tales about them.  Why?  Probably they didn’t pose a threat and were ultimately empowered to bestow blessings on the house. From that perspective alone Samhain was sometimes characterized as a Festival of the Dead. As we have already mentioned, it was much, much more.

Now to the malevolent spirits, the Unfriendlies (again, my term), who were a completely different story - apparently there to exact revenge for some previous despicable act against their person.  So guilty or not of any offense, many folk stayed inside while others who had to go out turned their clothes inside out, painted their faces or wore costumes and masks in order to confuse and ward off their spiritual adversaries.  That evolved (if we can call it that) into what would become known as “guising” and ultimately the “trick or treat” custom. Initially guisers would offer entertainment (song, dance, poetry, etc.) for a treat or money (“souling”), but that seems to have been supplanted by the “do or die” demand of current celebrants.  So, the modern tradition of trick-or-treating parallels the medieval practice of souling though with a lot edgier potential response to non-participants.  I hesitate to offer that Halloween in Scotland and Ireland was characterized by a strong tradition of pranks (sorry). On the bright side, the substantial immigration of Scots and Irish in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed the popularization of Halloween in North America.  They did bring us the jack-o-lantern which for them was usually a carved turnip which was quickly supplanted by our native pumpkin. Ah progress

Halloween today is far from being a time of preparation and ancient festival of the dead no matter how many horror films you see on October 31st. Halloween’s predecessors have been “touched” and modified by many cultures (and retailers) from the dawn of civilization.  While the ancient Celts contributed their beliefs and practices to a lot of the macabre tradition of Halloween, Christians influenced mightily as well.  Christians believed that the souls of the dead wandered Earth until All Saints' Day, when as one source cites, “All Hallows' Eve gave them one last chance to get vengeance on their enemies before moving onto the next world.” So folks in those days wore costumes in order to prevent those unforgiving spirits from recognizing them and taking their revenge.  All that vengeance stuff sounds a bit UnChristian and a heck of a lot like Samhain to us.  Indeed, it was.  The question then begs, who borrowed from whom?

While it’s certainly appropriate to acknowledge ancient rites, how sad an excuse it is for those perverted few to engage violence. Reality is that Halloween today is 1) mostly a secular folk tradition-inspired spectacular where retail gains additional billions of dollars in sales, 2) an innocent costume dress-up for young kids and 3) an excuse for many adults to party hearty. Yes, it can be a positive time to share time with Family and Friends.  

So now comes All Souls Day on November 2 which is dedicated to prayers for the dead a ritual in so-called primitive societies long before Christianity came into vogue.  Christians believed and understood that souls of the faithful departed could not enter Heaven unless substantial numbers of people prayed for them.  And, yes, that was a substantial income stream for many less than destitute and prayerful/powerful clergy of the middle ages… Though primarily a Roman Catholic observance, many western churches annually observe All Souls’ Day on November 2 including the Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

This is our segue to the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos - DDLM) which is a bona fide religious and civic holiday celebrated by the people of Latin America, particularly in Mexico and Central America on November 1st and 2nd.  If we think that Christians of western European origins have an unapproachable pedigree not to be equaled on earth, then we need to go back to school.  The origins of Día de los Muertos  celebrations can be traced back to various Mesoamerican native cultures including the Olmecs - as far back as 3000 years ago - long before Spain existed as a country and gave any thought to the Americas. Other cultures including the Toltecs, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztecs adopted the tradition and have carried it forward to the present day.

In Mexico DDLM starts on November 1st as the Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") or also as Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels") and is intended to honor deceased children and infants, while adults who have passed are honored on November 2nd. In some parts of Central America the observance is referred to as Dia de los Difuntos or “Day of the Deceased” as the word “muertos” in that culture and in that context is considered impolite, even offensive.

These are not solemn celebrations, rather festive events that border on carnival. The question begs - why grieve when you can party? Families gather in their homes and even at the gravesites of their beloved departed where they remember Friends and Family by praying and telling stories about their loved ones.  Family members bring presents for the Dead including Food, photos and other memorabilia – all intended to welcome them back with assurance that they are remembered and their company cherished.  The continuity of life is assured.

Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico during the 16th century and in an intentional carbon copy replication of Western Europe in the 9th century, a strong effort was made by the Spanish to forcibly convert the indigenous populations to Catholicism. The native cultures in Mesoamerica were not a cooperative lot so like the Romans, local traditions were blended with the tenets and practices of the Catholic faith. While the Spanish succeeded in varying degrees, the Mesoamericans still incorporate aspects of their original religious practices into their current faith. The Maya are probably the best example as they to this day retain some degree of paganism as the core of their religion. An example would be the association of many figures in Christianity with the Mesoamerican pantheon of gods.
And, yes, we have Hanal Pixán when the Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula celebrate the return to earth on October 31st (Children's Day), November 1st (the adults) and November 2nd (All Saints) – literally all those departed souls who now occupy another realm and enjoy a better life.  They are received by their relatives with respect and love. As in DDLM families set up alters in their homes and decorate their departed’s graves with offerings of food and candy. We could go on and on though it’s apparent that many different cultures around the world from the Celts to the Olmecs and beyond have shared ritual and beliefs that continue to this day even in our own communities.

So, take your pick and observe one or the other or both in the same spirit of those who created these celebrations. We hope that they continue forever – and a day. Yes, we are all connected.


Ned Buxton

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