Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in Latin America — including Mexico, Honduras and Brazil.
I’ve enjoyed the food, the culture and the traditions. I’m sad to say, though, I’ve never gotten to experience one of the traditions I’m most intrigued with. It’s the Day of the Dead in Mexico.
First off, Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, isn’t one day, but three. In contrast to Halloween celebrations, Day of the Dead embraces the departed. It is a time of remembrance, not fear.
The Day of the Dead has been celebrated for a couple thousand years in Mexico. It is most closely associated with the Aztecs. Typical of a lot of indigenous holidays, it was traditionally celebrated in the summer prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
With the arrival of the Catholic/Christian church, the celebration moved to coincide with All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.
Celebrations begin on Oct. 31, but Nov. 1 is the Day of the Innocents (“Día de los Inocentes”) or Day of the Little Angels (“Día de los Angelitos”) and is a memorial day for children that have died. Nov. 2 is the actual Day of the Dead and is effectively what we celebrate in the United States as Memorial Day.
In some communities, celebrants build altars over the graves of the deceased family members, while other places build private altars at home. They are covered with ofrendas (offerings) such as candles, flowers – marigolds – and personal possessions. This tradition encourages the departed to return home and hear the prayers of the living.
There are a lot of other traditions that go with the Day of the Dead, but one of the most visible is the skeletons that symbolize the dead. In Spanish, these are called calacas [kaˈlakas]. In this case, calacas are shown as joyful rather than sad or scary. The idea is that the dead like to be remembered happily. That tradition goes back to Aztec traditions — one of the few to survive the arrival of the Spanish.
My point is simply that there are other ways to look at All Hallows Eve/Halloween/All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead. They each look at essentially the same thing, but from completely different perspectives. One person’s horror is another’s reason for celebration.