Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) is an annual observance in Hispanic cultures that offers important lessons regarding the power of memory and gratitude.
Actually, it’s not just a one-day event.
Catholics and other Christian denominations observe All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, honoring those who have been designated saints by the church but who don’t have their own individual feast day. Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve – is the night before.
There’s another holiday we don’t hear as much about: All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2, also called “Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.” This is for Christians who died without ever being officially declared saints by the church. Included are family members, friends and members of the local congregation – people we actually knew.
Dia de los Muertos spans both days, Nov. 1 and 2. Like All Saints’ and All Souls’, it’s a time to remember and honor the dead. It has elements of the macabre – skulls, skeletons and graveyards in particular – but they serve a very different function and purpose than those associated with Halloween.
Both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos pre-date the arrival of Christianity, but one is fearful whereas the other is joyful.
In Gaelic Britain, Sanhaim, the precursor to Halloween, was the night the spirits of the dead were let loose to frighten and torment the living. People lit all-night bonfires to keep the ghosts at bay. If their efforts succeeded, the next day the more kindly and benevolent spirits of their ancestors would visit their homes for a brief reunion – or so they believed.
Los Muertos has its origins in the Indigenous cultures of Central and South America – the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. They also believed that the spirits of the dead returned, only without resorting to “fright night.” Instead, it was a time of cheerful remembrance and gratitude for the love and lessons of those who had died.
Los Muertos was like, “Oh, goody! Grandma and Grandpa are dropping by for their yearly visit!” With Sanhaim, it was more like, “Look out! The zombies are coming!”
With the arrival of Christianity to the British Isles and then the Americas, Sanhaim and Los Muertos were enculturated into the All Saints’ and All Souls’ observances of the Catholic Church.
It’s no different from what happened earlier when the Roman mid-winter holiday, Saturnalia, was repurposed as the birthday celebration for Jesus, and in northern Europe the German Tannenbaum got a new lease on life as a Christmas tree.
A friend of mine who was a foreign missionary to Ecuador and Chile recalls how Chilean families would construct small dwellings at the graves of their dead loved ones where their spirits could live until they had completed their time in Purgatory.
On Dia de los Muertos, the families would leave offerings of cakes for those spirits still in residence.
Some people disparage such practices as “superstition.” Would those Chileans think it’s also superstitious for us to leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve?
Another friend, also a former missionary to Ecuador, remembers the celebratory flavor of Los Muertos, including placing marigolds, the traditional flower, on the graves.
He wonders: How different is that from rural mountain churches that host an annual Decoration Day in the church cemetery, when families return to place flower arrangements on their ancestors’ graves, followed by a worship service and dinner-on-the-grounds? Or marking the Christmas holiday by a poinsettia on the dining table and an evergreen wreath on the door?
Los Muertos celebrations are different everywhere.
In some villages, there’s a procession to the graveyard with a mariachi band and led by a skeleton held aloft on a pole and dressed like the Virgin Mary. What comes immediately to my mind is a Christmas parade with the high school marching band and Santa Claus in his sleigh.
Another Los Muertos tradition is skull decorations (calaveras). Some are menacing, others more benign – even goofy, like the jack-o’-lanterns my kids used to carve.
And don’t forget the Mexican calavera de azúcar, a small sugar skull made of water, granulated sugar and meringue powder and decorated with icing and bits of hard candy. Anyone for a candy cane or Christmas sugar cookie?
I don’t intend to demean, trivialize or poke fun at Dia de Los Muertos by these comparisons to Christmas and other observances common to our culture. Quite the opposite.
Wherever Christianity has encountered other traditions, something like a “mash-up” has occurred. Christianity has usually come out on top, but not without incorporating bits and pieces of the culture it displaced.
So, Christmas kept many of its pre-Christian European roots, Halloween reflects its ancient Gaelic origins, and Dia de Los Muertos retains its pre-Columbian heritage. Maybe it’s God’s way of translating the message into the local dialect.
So, what is the underlying message of Dia de los Muertos?
One missionary friend went straight to the Bible: “If people die, shall they live again?” (Job 14:14). The other agreed, pointing to the universal yearning in all of us to know what happens after this life.
That’s why cultures from the Appalachians to the Andes, from Africa and Australia to China, Korea and Japan, find some way to venerate their ancestors.
My daughter observed Dia de los Muertos firsthand when she lived in Dallas. She noticed especially the comfort and gratitude that comes from remembering and appreciating the ones whose physical and cultural DNA you inherit.
Ten years ago, my father’s people put together a re-burial to honor a Civil War-era ancestor. He got married and, not long afterward, went off to fight, leaving behind a pregnant wife.
He never came home. Had his son, an only child, not been born, none of us would be here. I’m grateful.
One more thing about Day of the Dead, maybe what matters most: my missionary friend recalls a class taught by William McNeill Poteat, Jr. at Wake Forest University.
Poteat said, “I have lived through life, and I have lived it well, but one thing I have learned: this life is not enough.”
The Bible concurs: “The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10).
Like Ash Wednesday, Day of the Dead is a reminder: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19).
So, it turns out Dia de los Muertos is more of a question than it is an answer. For that, we have to make a trip to another graveyard – the one with the empty tomb.
Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Buies Creek, North Carolina. He lives with Laila the pit bull and enjoys riding a motorcycle and playing the guitar.