Halloween arrives each year on October 31, and like many, I am fascinated by the history and traditions behind it. It’s a time that we celebrate all things spooky. And while I’m not a fan of slasher or possession movies, I love a good ghost story like the adaptation I did this year for The Ghostly Tales of Door County for the Spooky in America series published by Arcadia Publishing.
But it’s the origin story that I find most interesting. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain was a good-bye summer/hello winter type of festival. The dark, cold winter naturally was associated with death. And Celtic lore said that October 31 was the time when the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. Cue the creepy music.
The living dressed up in costumes to hide their identities from ghosts. And although original jack o’lanterns were more likely to be carved from turnips than pumpkins, they still kept evil away.
Other interpretations say that Samhain was a time people felt close to deceased relatives and friends. They set places for the departed at the dinner table and left treats at the door. Candles were used to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.
And it is this legend that most reminds me of el Día de los Muertos, a two-day Mexican holiday that begins at midnight on November 1. Day of the Dead has spread to the United States and throughout Latin America. It has an especially strong presence in large Hispanic communities like San Antonio, where you can tune in to the Day of The Dead Parade Broadcast.
Día de los Muertos has been around thousands of years. It teaches that death is a natural part of the human experience and should be celebrated. Day of the Dead is a holiday that makes sense to me, and I find that I crave things making sense these days. Blending indigenous Aztec rituals with organized religion, Day of the Dead honors the dead with festivals because loved ones who have passed on would be insulted by sadness.
People create colorful altars in their home with candles, trinkets, sugar calveras (skulls), and favorite items of the departed. Pan de muertos, a symbol of both death and life, is commonly found at altars as well. Have you seen pan de muertos? This sweet bread of the dead manages to look like a scrumptious work of art.
Skeletons, known as calacas or sometimes as elegantly dressed catrines (men) or catrinas (women), are usually shown as having a good time. They also remind us that everyone is equal in death.
The living may paint their faces as death masks for parades and processions. Often these events lead to the cemetery so that people can celebrate with the dead, who have awakened for this special time. Picnics, activities, and fun are all on the party agenda. It’s a time that the souls of the dead and the living can reconnect for a brief time.
Día de los Muertos isn’t scary, and it isn’t Halloween. It’s a beautiful time of remembrance and celebration of life.