Celebration of Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Bill Brewer Catholic Church, Hispanic, News

A mix of religiosity and Mexican tradition

By Lourdes Garza

As Catholics, it is important to understand the origin and meaning of the celebrations that will be taking place in the following days. Halloween (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day and Day of the Dead (November 2). It is important for us to understand their origins because while they are celebrated in different ways, and in different parts of the world, there exist similarities to and associations with Christianity and our Catholic faith.

Halloween originated in Europe as a celebration of the end of autumn and preparation for the winter season. Large meals were prepared for those invited to feast and for their loved ones who had died. They opened the doors of their homes as a welcome invitation for the souls of deceased loved ones to come and visit them. It was also a common belief that the souls of bad people would visit them as well and they began to wear costumes to hide from the bad souls. By the sixteenth century, the feast was being called “Halloween,” which is a contraction of the term “Hallows Eve,” or “night before All Saints Day.” All Saints Day is a Christian holiday which commemorates those who lived exemplary lives and reached holiness. History tells us that on the day after All Saints Day the poor would beg for money on the street in exchange for prayer for the souls of the departed (not saints necessarily). That tradition became what is now known as “All Souls Day.”

One way that the Catholic Church approached evangelization of non-Christian cultures and religions was to integrate their feasts and holidays into the Catholic liturgical calendar. By doing so, the Catholic Church was able to eradicate the practice of human sacrifice that was common in many of these feasts, and instead root the celebration on Catholic theology – celebration of life. However, the bases of those traditions still remain strong in many countries and cultures.  In Mexico, for example, the original Aztec Day of the Dead is still heavily celebrated (November 2) and some of the traditional methods of celebrations exist, but the theology behind the celebration is rooted in Catholic theology. In the book “Latino Holidays,” Valarie Menard explains it this wa

Thus, the Day of Death was started by the Mexican native tribes as a means of continuing their belief in the circle of life in which death plays a part and is not to be feared. As it evolved, the native holiday incorporated aspects of the Catholic teaching of death as an end to mortal life and a beginning of a new and better afterlife.” And,  celebrating it…”gives the bereaved an opportunity to become immersed in thoughts of a lost loved one and even to imagine that that loved one has paid them a visit. Ironically, even though many church doctrines, including Christianity, espouse a life after death, Día de los Muertos makes it seem more real.”

The observation of the Day of the Dead takes place over several days, and culminates with a visit to the deceased’s gravesite on the night of November 1 with a celebration that extends all night until the morning of the 2nd. The preparation begins days before the with cooking the favorite foods of the deceased, accumulation of favorite objects that recall the memories of the deceased, and making decorations out of bunches of orange marigolds (cempoaxochitl in Nahuatl), the traditional flower of this feast day. The foods also include sugar skulls and “pan de muerto” which is bread decorated with bones or skeleton figures. All these items are used to form an ‘ofrenda’ (offering or altar) that is built on the grave of the deceased. These celebrations or offerings also commonly take place in a family member’s home. The observance takes place with the family members gathered in front of the offering. They pray for the soul of the deceased, usually a Rosary is prayed. Afterward, they enjoy the meal and they share stores about the deceased as a commemoration and celebration of their life.

In other countries like the Philippines, Hungary and Poland there are similar celebrations dedicated to the remembrance of the dead. In Brazil, All Souls Day is a holy day of obligation, and in Spain it is celebrated with festivals and parades. Similar to the Aztec tradition, there are celebrations of the dead amongst cultures in Asia, Africa and Oceania.

By studying the meanings of these celebrations, whether pagan/secular or religious, we discover similarities and direct association with Christianity. These discoveries help us to better understand their meaning so that we can observe the feasts more intentionally.