Saturday, October 22, 2016

Halloween, All Saints Day and Day of the Dead


Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a holiday that makes us think of Mexico. But how do All Saints Day and Halloween figure into the mix?

All these holidays deal with skulls, skeletons and death. But the holidays are not the same. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Catholic feast of All Saints Day (November 1st) was combined with the traditions and festivities that were long-time customs of the indigenous people. While traditions may have changed in different geographical locations, the religious (Catholic) fact is that November 1st is All Saints Day and November 2nd is All Souls Day.

The indigenous people already had a long tradition of honoring their ancestors and deceased loved ones with processions and festivals involving flowers, fruits and incense. Some say that the Spaniards found these rituals to be mocking death, and that they tried their best to eliminate the practices. Nowadays, we realize that the Day of the Dead is a day to honor the dead. Today, in homes, churches, cemeteries, and public places, traditional "ofrendas," altars with offerings to the dead, invite beloved souls to visit the living. At these altars you will see photographs of the dead and offerings of food, amulets and flowers.

Since the Spanish could not eradicate the native celebration, combining it with All Saints Day seemed an excellent compromise.

Often on the Day of the Dead, you will see Mexican families heading for the cemeteries to paint, decorate and otherwise tend the graves of their departed family members. In some towns this takes on a carnival atmosphere with sales of cotton candy and mariachi music.

Day of the Dead and Halloween
Day of the Dead celebrations are very close to Halloween time, October 31st. But as the customs have different origins, and their attitudes toward death are different. In the typical Halloween festivities, death is something to be feared. But in celebrating Dia de los Muertos death, or at least the memories of those who have died, is something to be celebrated.

You, Too Can Celebrate Day of the Dead
Anyone can celebrate the Day of the Dead, and increasing numbers of Anglos who live in the Southwest and in places where Mexican Americans have settled are taking notice of the customs of honoring those they love and revere. Any family can make an altar to the memory of a loved one and it doesn't necessarily have to be a religious observance. It is a time to pause and think of those who have died and to use creativity in putting together an altar or even a shelf with photos, favorite mementos and offerings of flowers or food.

This can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. Here is an example of an altar made by a Mexican family. Some people have even developed altars for people outside their families that they wish to recognize such as the 9/ll victims or victims of child abuse and neglect.

Kathy Cano Murillo, the Crafty Chica, has some ideas for Dia de los Muertos crafts projects. I found amazing skull and skeleton art at Spanish Markets in Santa Fe and Phoenix.

Chelsie Kenyon, Mexican Cuisine writer, has a recipe for Pan de Muerto, a sweet bread used on Day of the Dead as an offering. The bread called Pan de Muerto or "bread of the dead," is usually sweet with decorations resembling bones. Even if you don’t celebrate Dias de los Muertos yourself, you can still enjoy this delicious sweet bread. A recipe for the sweet drink, Atole is also traditional for Day of the Dead. Atole is used on Dia de los Muertos altars and enjoyed throughout October to remember the dead.

My favorite food and craft idea for Day of the Dead is the making of Sugar Skulls. According to Chelsie Kenyon Mexican, the skulls are Mexican folk art used to honor the deceased during the Day of the Dead holiday and they also make unique Halloween decorations. Children love to help make and decorate the skulls so they make a great craft idea too.