Día de los Muertos & Halloween

Food and the dead, Irish begging door-to-door, Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

Anon. Día de los Muertos.

Now celebrated in many parts of the world, Halloween has come to mean different things to different people. For some adults, the holiday has acquired a Mardi-Gras flavor and offers opportunities to pose at parties and bars as preening pimps and naughty nurses. Spandex, it seems, has liberated many a black cat and outed a number of otherwise closeted French maids. “If you’re over twenty-one,” a student of mine observed, “Halloween is more about stare than scare.”

For kids, Halloween remains a night to sport with fears and make candy-seeking visits to homes decorated with spider webs and grinning jack-o-lanterns. It’s also a time when their wishes aren’t hidden; they get to walk around as Spidermans and Cinderellas. And the night before All Soul’s Day is also the time when youngsters–dressed as the Grim Reaper, or bloodthirsty vampires, or ghosts who have suffered ghastly wounds–pound on the doors of the aged and say not “Memento Mori” but “Trick or Treat.”

For adolescents, the night may be more about Trick than Treat. Tipping over outhouses and soaping people’s windows now seem pranks from a bygone era when folks bobbed for apples and told stories about the Headless Horseman. Nowadays, it’s more likely a neighbor’s yard will be festooned with toilet paper–or worse. In Detroit, Devil’s Night (October 30) has come to mean arson and unchecked civic mayhem. In Ireland, the traditional bonfires have been replaced by packs of youths burning tires in the streets.

We have the Irish to thank for Halloween. For the ancient Celts, October 31 was a “hinge” time that marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. As the days darkened, the boundaries between the living and dead became blurry. In the festival of Samhain, food was left out for hungry ghosts and the living masqueraded as the dead, begging food or “soul cakes” door-to-door.

Wishing to incorporate this pagan celebration into Christianity, Pope Boniface in the Ninth Century declared November 1 “All Saints’ Day”; and so, the night before came to be called “All Hallow’s Eve” and eventually “Halloween.” Then, after the famines of the Nineteenth Century, the hungry Irish brought this food-gathering custom to the other side of the Atlantic. Here they discovered that American pumpkins served as better shelters for their candles than the customary hollowed-out turnips they had used back home.

To be sure, the notion that the dead are hungry is found all over the world, but especially in Latin America and particularly in Mexico. Since time immemorial, food offerings have been connected to the indigenous celebration of El Día de los Muertos, a custom later linked with the Christian events of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).

Our family altar for one Día de los Muertos

In our Irish-Mexican household, we celebrate the Day of the Dead in the customary way: constructing an altar covered with photographs and ofrendas (offerings of our loved ones’ favorite meals). Other folks mark the way into their homes with marigold petals and candles so the dead don’t get lost, and still others are even more considerate and go to the cemetery to picnic with the deceased and clean their gravestones.

What’s important to understand about El Día de los Muertos is its macabre humor. People tell funny stories about the dead. Sugar skulls (calaveras) and zany skeletons (calacas) are used as comic decorations. And the vision of an abundance of food on the one hand, and hungry ghosts on the other, is likely to prompt, I can report, jokes about graveyard Jenny Craigs and Latinas on Slim-Fast.

Talking about the macabre, besides Michael Jackson in “Thriller,” the person who really gets this holiday is Tim Burton. His popular animated film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” tells the story of Jack Skellington (the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town) who decides to escape his place in the calendar (October 31) and disastrously invade December 25. But be advised: Charles Dickens got there ahead of Burton. In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens was probably the first to link the ghost story with the Nativity and propose that the typical sound of Christmas Eve was not reindeer prancing on rooftops but the Halloween-like howling of doomed spirits dragging chains behind them.

Even so, Burton got something right. When you can see Goths any day of the week, when you consider the time-less appeal of vampire stories, it’s clear Halloween won’t stay in its place on the calendar.

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28. October 2016 by
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