The Day of the dead is NOT Halloween

Día de muertos, originally uploaded by Misraim Alvarez.

A lot of widowed people get the creeps from Halloween decorations at this time of year. Who needs to see another graveyard, living skeleton, or worst of all, blood and gore, after getting truly intimate with death? It was hard for even me to see "RIP" on a lawn in the fall, although my husband rests in a jar on top of a bookshelf.

But the Day of the Dead is NOT Halloween, and actually, to my mind, it's EXACTLY what we -- you and I and our communities -- need. One of the most common and most torn complaints I hear from grieving people is that "our culture lacks a way to mourn." We don't have any prescribed way to share, to be sad together or even alone. While the problem extends beyond the U.S., it's easy to see how as a richly diverse society - sewn together from different national histories and languages, different regions, with religious freedom, and formed in a break from the old world (and after smashing the cultures of the world that we incorporated as we built) - our lack of unity has left some gaps. Yes, many of us have some way to celebrate, remember, to pass milestones - but not together. While many rituals can be helpful, healing, and connecting - Jewish friends often speak of how well their grieving traditions "work" - they can also isolate us by keeping us with those from the same culture, who may not be the ones we most need or want.

So what are some differences between these two autumn festivals, which are related both to pagan traditions like Samhain and Christian ones like All Souls Day? On both holidays the veil between the worlds grows thin: the dead can visit the living. But the similarities are superficial:

Day of the Dead
Graveyards are creepy
Families go to the graveyards to clean up, spend the night there singing, playing, and remembering (usually with picnic).
Zombies claw their way out of the soil and they are coming to eat your brains.
The dead are coming back to tell you they love you, they miss you and they wish they hadn't had to leave.
You offer candy to kids you don't know so that they don't throw rotten eggs at your house.
You spend days preparing favorite foods for your deceased loved ones, and share it with your friends and family. May or may not include egg dishes.
Skeletons look "natural" but have light up red eyes and yell BOO.
Skeletons are stylized, colorful and flowered, with glittery eyeshadow. They dance and sing folk music.
No relation to actual death - mostly to horror movies and cartoons.
Death is a part of life, we remember those who have preceded us.
Kids act crazy and get all sugared up.
Cheap plastic crap purchased at the drug store, battery powered candy bowls, cheap HFCS-filled candy by the boatload.
Festive handmade decorations, your finest pottery and best food.
Conformity: Kids dress up like branded characters.
Subversion: Toy skeletons mimic politicians and adulterous, drunkard mortals.

Doesn't this sound like what you've been asking for? Let's fill the gaps, people. Let's create a tradition that helps us move through life with love and memories, and connects us with each other. Join us!

Oaxaca 2009 079, originally uploaded by Pablo Aburto.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this.
I'm an Australian and have always been uncomfortable that we are slowly adopting Halloween here .... it's not one of our traditions and it seems like crass commercialisation promoting unhealthy food, bad teeth and poor taste in clothes.

But Day of The Dead - I can totally relate to that.

Just after Greg died, I instinctively made this type of shrine with a photo, paper flowers, things the kids had made and tea-light candles and now I have a name for it!
Thanks for explaining the differences to me.

Ann Cser said...

Thank you for listing this. My wedding anniversary is actually November 2, so I will have two reasons to "celebrate". In Poland (I'm Polish) they celebrate Zaduszki, which also means the day of the dead. In addition to visiting the graves and lighting candles, in rural Poland they leave doors and windows ajar because it is believed that the souls will come back at midnight to visit their homes. Of course, they leave out vodka for the souls.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Corymbia, my condolences on Halloween. I love it now that I have a kid, and I loved it when I WAS a kid, but I am not crazy about the grown-ups acting like kids part.

Ann, thanks for sharing about the Polish festival! I'm so sorry for your loss. Hope we can find good company online or in person through the holidays. Please keep in touch!


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