Why I’d rather celebrate Day of the Dead than Halloween
Halloween is upon us and with it, the excessive commercialism that has, sadly, come to characterise this holiday. I know some parents make the effort to teach their kids some context, but I suspect many young trick or treaters will have no idea about the origins of the occasion. In fact, trick or treating is thought to have started in Ireland, Wales and Scotland where knocking door to door resulted in the exchange of food for a song. The origins of Halloween go back further: an adaptation of the Celtic pagan festival known as Samhain according to some, while Christians mark it as the evening before All Hallows, an 8th Century attempt to eradicate pagan celebrations. Both however, have something in common: it’s seen as a time when the spirits return and the dead are remembered.
My issue with Halloween, my only issue, is its materialistic bent. Encouraging children to demand treats doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, it’s a bit of fun and what kid doesn’t like dressing up and carving pumpkins? I have no problem with that! However, it seems, as with Christmas, that the true meaning of the occasion has been well and truly buried under all that candy-begging and even harassment of the vulnerable. And if you’re still in any doubt that this is big business, then consider these statistics from a recent Daily Telegraph article:
- £283 million: predicted sales of Halloween-based products in the UK in 2015
- $6.9 billion: total Halloween consumer spending in the US expected for 2015
- $2.1 billion: total amount expected to be spent in the US on candy in 2015
- 3 million: number of pumpkins Tesco expects to sell this Halloween
If you’re a Halloween fan and still reading, and I haven’t well and truly pissed you off by this point, then let me tell you what I prefer about Day of the Dead. Known as Dia de los Muertos, it’s been part of Mexican culture for three thousand years. I first experienced this festival a few years ago with a visit to Oaxaca and was immediately struck by the way that it blended religion, respect, commemoration and celebration. And let’s not forget that last one. Day of the Dead is anything but dull: there are fancy dress parades, carnival floats and of course, much music, drinking and dancing.
At the heart of the festivities is the dressing of the graves of the ancestors and the construction of homemade altars built to honour their spirits and encourage them to return for a visit. Work starts on these ofrendas in the last few days of October, and every street corner is occupied by flower sellers surrounded by buckets of vibrant orange marigolds known locally as cempasuchil.
- On November 1st, the souls of deceased children are the focus, while on November 2nd, it’s the turn of the adult ancestors. Families visit the cemetery and sit at the graveside to raise a glass of Mezcal and eat a special feast. It’s all at once a poignant, private and public occasion, as visitors are welcomed and encouraged to join in.
Catrina, the elegantly dressed skeleton and iconic figure of Day of the Dead, is everywhere. Clearly, commerce plays a big part in Dia de los Muertos too: vendors sell everything from sugar skulls to folk art skeletons, Mezcal to garlands of marigold petals. I don’t have a problem with that. But in Mexico it sits side by side with ceremony and tradition, with both given their proper place.
Dia de los Muertos touched me as a way to remember my grandparents, much loved but long departed. Amid the hectic day to day activities of “life goes on”, over time, I found myself thinking of them less and less. It’s not that I don’t still love them, but I began to worry that as the memories faded I’d one day forget to remember what a significant contribution they made to my life. Their photos are on the altar we made:
When I went to Oaxaca, I took with me their photographs, and, having been privileged to help build an altar at Casa de las Bugambilias, felt a stronger connection to them than I’d had in years. So this year, I’ve built my own altar and on November 2nd, All Souls Day, I’ll raise a glass to toast these very special people and thank them for all they did for me when they were here.
For more photos from the Oaxaca trip, please visit: