This past week saw the celebration of Halloween, which began as the “e’en” (short for evening) before the feast of all saints (all hallows; that is, holy ones).
A couple of decades ago, few outside of the Mexican community had heard of the celebration of the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) but artworks, large celebrations in American cities, and especially the movie “Coco,” have made this Mexican version of Halloween very familiar.
The beautifully decorated skeleton faces are very different from the version of skeletons popular in costumes and home decorations of North American culture. They are not meant to scare, but to express a much more positive feeling about death.
Ghosts and spirits are not feared; they are welcomed, because they represent the souls of departed loved ones who have gone before us.
The celebration dates to long before Christianity came to Mexico, and had its origins in what we might consider ancestor worship among the Aztecs. The Christian missionaries saw the connection between what the people already believed and the new faith’s teaching about the souls of the dead remaining with us.
So the fiesta, previously celebrated at a different time of year, became associated with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls at the beginning of November.
The decorated faces, the bright costumes and arrays of flowers are all meant to connect the living to the dead. There are two important things of which people are to be reminded. The first, symbolized by wearing a skeleton’s face is that each of us will die and become a corpse ourselves.
The second is to honor those whom we have loved in this life and who are no longer with us in the same way as when they were alive. People go to cemeteries to visit their loved ones’ graves or set up little commemorative “altars” or tables in their homes with pictures of the deceased and things that are reminders of them.
Sometimes they make little “offerings” of the loved one’s favorite food or drink, or other things the deceased enjoyed. The people do all this not to worship the dead, but to celebrate them and the unique gift that they were in life. Just as in the “Coco” movie, the departed can still be with us in some way, inspire us and guide us because we remember who they were, what they stood for and what we have learned from them.
Many Christian families are looking for ways to celebrate Halloween without the emphasis on evil figures and fright. Perhaps we can look to the Mexican version of the holiday for some guidance. A family might decide to use this time to look at the positive side of death and spirits.
Belief in the people of God as the “communion of saints” means that feeling the dead yet among us doesn’t have to be a scary thing. Cemeteries and gravestones are frequently a part of Halloween decorations or horror movies.
A twist on this might be for a family to add a visit to the graves of family members or friends around Halloween to remember and honor them, to “talk” to them about what is happening in the family’s life. If there has been loss of a loved one in the more recent past, there could be a little commemorative place in the house with their picture, meaningful objects and flowers.
There will, of course, be some sadness around such commemorations, but they should lead to a greater valuing of who that person was, what we received from their life, and how we can honor their memory by how we live.
Then we need not be afraid of their spirits or of the death we will someday know ourselves.