Note: This is a slightly edited version of a reflection published in our BCM E-News, November 2005. Above picture: Over the last several years Elaine and I have been inspired by the magnificent Día de los Muertos altars built by brilliant folk artist Manuel Hernandez, who was part of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community for many years before returning to Mexico to found a Catholic Worker farm. Often his altar would take up half of the living room of the house of hospitality; it became famous around East L.A., with dozens of friends and neighbors coming to view his installation each year. The altar pictured here is from 2005.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” (Heb 12:1)
The death of loved ones leaves a hole in our hearts and souls, one that can be salved only with memory. We North Americans, however, are not very competent at the art of remembering. The dominant culture into which we have been socialized is one rife with historical amnesia and disconnection with the past. This has had a negative impact on personal, family and community practices of mindfulness and memory. We have a lot to learn therefore from cultures for which rituals of remembering are more intact. One of those traditions is our ecclesial feast of All Saints.
All Saints is actually a three day feast, beginning with Halloween, which is short for “All Hallows’ Eve” (hallow being the Old English word for “holy “). As in the Jewish tradition, Christians of old observed holy days from sundown on one day until sundown on the following day. All Saints Day (Nov. 1) is followed by All Souls Day, or “Day of the Dead” in the tradition of old Mexico. Let’s take them in order.
The traditions of Halloween hearken back to Samhain (pronounced sow-en), the ancient Celtic New Year. Samhain (meaning “end of summer”) was observed when the weather started to get cold, as livestock were brought down from the hills and people began preparing for the winter months. It also celebrated the last harvest. The Celts believed that times of change had special power—and this turning toward winter was particularly important. The season of turning brought a “thinning” of the veil between the living and those who had passed through the ultimate change from life to death. So during Samhain the spirits of the departed were especially close, and there were many Celtic rituals to commemorate this. It is these traditions that linger, however remotely, in the “spooky” practices of modern Halloween. Returning to such traditions offers a welcome break from the commercialized culture of trick or treating, which the Los Angeles Times noted in 2005 represents “a $3-billion spending extravaganza that is beginning to rival Christmas.”
One history explains the origins of Halloween thus:
In medieval times, one popular All Souls’ Day practice was to make “soul cakes,” simple bread desserts with a currant topping. In a custom called “souling,” children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters. For every cake a child collected, he or she would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven. The children even sang a soul cake song along the lines of the modern “Trick-or-treat, trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat.”
Historians say the ancient Celts would dress up in ghoulish outfits and parade out of town to lead the wandering spirits away. Even more interesting, Celtic children would walk door to door to collect firewood for a giant communal bonfire. Once the bonfire was burning, the revelers would extinguish all the other fires in the village. They would then relight every fire with a flame taken from the Samhain bonfire, as a symbol of the people’s connection to one another. These flames or embers were typically carried back home in a hollowed out turnip! Irish families who emigrated to America brought the tradition with them, replacing the turnips with pumpkins, which were much more plentiful in their new home. Thus the Jack O Lantern!
Christians have, of course, been giving honor to heroes of the faith from the earliest days of the church. The liturgical calendar is busy with saints’ days, which often commemorate their martyrdom or death. But in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV established All Saints’ Day in order to honor all the rest of the saints. Although it is considered a minor feast in the modern church (far over-shadowed by Halloween), it offers us a unique opportunity to remember, mourn and celebrate those who have been important to our faith.
All Souls day, in turn, was established for all the departed. Many of the Christianized tribes of Europe had traditions of praying to the dead. In Germany this practice was first accepted and sanctified by a monastery led by St. Odilo of Cluny in 1048, who ordered the commemoration of all the faithful departed annually. From there the practice gradually spread, and the practice settled on the day after All Saints in the western church.
The “dyptich” of All Saints/All Souls days is celebrated throughout Mexico and the American Southwest as Día de los Muertos. When the Spanish first landed in Mexico they encountered indigenous people practicing rituals dating back some 3,000 years that seemed to mock death. Unable to eradicate these practices, as was so often the case, the Spanish “Catholicized” them. But central to modern traditions are many of the basic principles of the old Aztec rituals, such as the use of skulls to honor the dead, who it was believed came back during the season of harvest (roughly coinciding with August). The Church moved the rituals to Nov 1-2 to harmonize with commemoration of saints.
Día de los Muertos, with its elaborate altars and festive decoration of graves, is widely misunderstood by westerners as morbid. In fact it is a celebration not only of the departed, but of death itself as part of the cycle of life. There is a respectful, yet often wry depiction of the dead in all the phases of life, made famous by the ubiquitous calacas (playful skeleton figures). Throughout Mexico and Mexican America the most important aspect of this celebration is the home altar, constructed around pictures of friends and relatives who have passed over, surrounded by candles, calaveras (skulls, usually made out of sugar and elaborately decorated), ofrendas (offerings, often food and liquor), papel picado (cut paper) and every sort of memento (nothing is off limits).
Since our experience of doing community hospice for my mentor Ladon Sheats in 2002 (see my piece “Caretaking the Gift: A Journey of Hospice,” The Catholic Agitator, November, 2002, available for download from this site) Elaine and I have begun to be much more intentional about taking time to remember those who have passed. This led to our embrace of Día de los Muertos, not as cultural tourists but as participants in its deep and healing wisdom. We’ve made a simple altar in our home with pictures, cut flowers, and all sorts of mementos, and have found it to be deeply healing. (See here for ideas and instructions for working within the indigenous/Mexican tradition). It is now becoming part of the rhythm of our lives, and has helped restore for us the profundity of the All Saints Triduum. These rituals invite us to mindfulness of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) that surrounds us always—but especially during the days of in which the veil thins.