The PODCAST for November 2 is up. Episode 28 coming your way. Either listen here, download to iTunes, or read the transcript below. Or all three! If you do make it over to iTunes, be a dear and leave a review.
Today is November 2, the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos).
I don’t have any Hispanic heritage, or even decent Spanish language skills, but I do really enjoy learning about other cultures. The Day of the Dead also dovetails with my own Catholic religious observance of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
As a former history teacher, I had to know the background of a this holiday. Starting in the Central American realm of things, before Columbus stumbled his way into the New World, the Meso-American cultures observed a couple months dedicated to their dead ancestors, usually during the time of the fall harvest. The tradition of building alters to honor dead loved ones, and filling those alters with food, flowers, and items that represent the dead, still exists today.
However, the practice merged with the Christian tradition of All Saints and All Souls Day. To understand that, we have to flip the globe back over to Europe.
The Pre-Christian Celtic world celebrated the festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) on October 31st. It was basically the Celtic’s New Year’s Eve. They believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead became so thin during this night that the dead could pass through and visit the living. Again, this coincides with the end of the fall harvest, a time of natural death in the world.
Enter Christianity. The early Christian Church really had to struggle to win people over. They were still the new kid on the block. But they did something smart. Instead of fighting the old pagan festivals, which people were used to celebrating and looked forward to, they began to adopt and adapt them. The church declared Nov. 1 to be All Saints Day, and Nov. 2 as All Souls Day. All Saints honors the blessed saints and martyrs who died for the faith. It is followed immediately by All Souls, which honors and remembers all of our deceased loved ones. The old name for All Saints Day was ‘All Hallows,’ which means the night before is ‘All Hallows Eve.’ Add a lot of time, strong ale, and mumbling…and you have the modern name for the night: Halloween. It has blended with the traditions of Samhain, which includes wearing masks to disguise yourself from the ghouls roaming the earth as well as placing treats on your doorstep to distract any of those ghouls from coming inside your house.
Back to Latin America… As these new Christian traditions melted into the Americas, the Church adopted the festivals honoring the dead and incorporated much of the old traditions into All Saints and All Souls Day. As with any holiday, culture and tradition differ from region to region, even from town to town. But, in general, many Hispanics celebrate Nov. 1 as the Day of the Innocents, a day specially reserved for deceased children, angelitos, to return to visit their families. Nov. 2 kicks the celebration up a notch as the souls of deceased adults return for the evening.
Even outside of the Hispanic cultures, you will often see other Christians, mostly Catholics, attending a special mass for the dead and cleaning family gravestones.
Honestly, I like the Hispanic party atmosphere. Death isn’t something that is feared, rather it is accepted and celebrated as a passage from one realm to another. It isn’t the end.
The fact that all of these various cultures have found some way of honoring the dead around the fall harvest time isn’t a coincidence. We see it with our eyes in the way the trees begin to turn and die. We feel it in the changes in atmosphere.
Fall is my favorite time of year, and I know I’m not alone in that opinion. The colors of the leaves, pumpkin spice everything (yes, I’m basic and proud of it). The cool, crisp air…well, it’s still 80 degrees in ALabama, but I’m patiently waiting for fall weather.
It’s odd to love a season that is so focused on death, a season about destruction and endings.
Or is it odd? We love fall because we know it’s not the end of the story. It’s a season, which means it has an end and is followed by another season. Even as we watch things die around us, we can celebrate because we know they will return, in new form, come spring.
We see the beauty in the destruction around us instead of mourning for it because we have hope and faith in the future.
Our lives follow these same seasons. Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 sets this out so beautifully:
1 For everything there is a season, and la time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to nweep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to whate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
I would be remiss if I didn’t play Turn Turn Turn by the Byrds right now.
But the chapter goes on after the song ends. In verse 11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. “
I love that. He has put eternity in our hearts. From the very beginning, no matter what origins or culture, we know this life is not the end. We knew this is just a season.
And God is in all of our seasons. All seasons are for a purpose and lead us through His plan.
You may be in the midst of a season of personal death and destruction right now. Coming to the end of something isn’t usually easy. But we can find the beauty in that change, even when it hurts, because we have hope and faith that God is planning our next season.