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Los Días de los Muertos


Hallowe’en is my favorite holiday, and I’m not alone.  It is the second most popular holiday after Christmas in the United States, and the single largest occasion for candy sales in the year. I decorate my house inside and out, put up inviting orange lights around the front door,  and wear a darling witch hat “fascinator” to greet little goblins who ring the bell, but beyond all that, I just love the whole season. I love the way it feels; the mood, the themes, the colors, even the weather, suit me.

Most of our fall customs and traditions, including Hallowe’en, evolved from the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest and the beginnings of the darker season. Though we are no longer an agrarian society, the crisp air of late autumn still prompts us to put up, clean up, and set aside. At my house, we can vegetables, make fruit pies, rake leaves and prune trees. I “change over” my closet, store away summer whites and get my darker, heavier clothes out of the cedar chest (yes, even in South Texas). We prepare to hibernate.

Inevitably, all these preparations for staying indoors encourage quieter, more contemplative activities and introspective thoughts. People in the Middle Ages believed that the transition from late fall to early winter was the time when “the veil between this world and the next” was most transparent. Thus, All Hallow’s Eve led into the Catholic Church’s All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2, the holy days that were meant to honor the dead and show communion with them in the journey “from life to life.”

Hallowe’en as we know it, with its trick-or-treating and bobbing for apples, is commonly thought to have been brought here by the Irish in the 19th century. The Irish would hardly recognize it today, though, in an American culture that has such a conflicted relationship with death that it doesn’t even like to use the word. No, our celebration of Hallowe’en has strayed far from it’s spiritual roots of honoring the dead to become a retail bonanza of costumes, greeting cards, decorations, haunted houses, parades and parties — all of which attempt to mock the macabre and bury the fright of our own mortality in fun.

Death is the one true fact of life, and there is hardly a culture in the world that does not somehow sanctify or celebrate that fact, or have a set of superstitions and beliefs about what happens afterward. Whether it’s the haunting of the undead among us, the zombies and vampires who roam the earth to terrorize, or the uplifting hope of spirits who live on, the angels and saints who support and protect us, the way a culture deals with death says much about how it deals with life.

Día de los Muertos, the Mexican festival which actually begins on Hallowe’en and spans All Saints and All Souls Days, honors deceased friends and family members and celebrates their lives. It, too, has its roots in Catholicism, though similar folk practices date back to pre-Columbian days in parts of Central and South America.  Small altars, called ofrendas, are erected with candles, photographs, and other symbols of the departed, and skeletal figures, Las Catrinas, are fashioned to represent the deceased by clothing, profession or hobby. Some families actually pack up their loved one’s favorite foods and go out to the gravesite for a picnic!

The celebration of  Día de los Muertos has long been a part of Texas culture, but it is now becoming more common, and more culturally significant, in other parts of the country too, especially as the Hispanic population grows and migrates. Artists, sculptors, print makers and fabric artists have emerged from Mexico and the US, and their works inspired by Día de los Muertos can be found  in major museums and galleries around the country. You can buy calaveras (edible sugar skulls) in confectionary shops, airports and train stations all over; greeting cards with Muertos symbols sit alongside Halloween cards in the local Hallmark store.  I even bought Muertos themed stationery, made in Great Britain, in a shop in Dubai earlier this year!

Respecting an ancestral past and honoring the dead, rather than acting crazy and dressing up like the un-dead, are common practices in many cultures all over the world, but they are also more reflective practices — not a common trait in the American character. For my part, I’m going to continue to celebrate both Hallowe’en and Día de los Muertos as I always have.  To borrow a favorite phrase from Sandra Cisneros, it is my way of “recollecting the things to come.”

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