The Day of the Dead in Mexican Culture

Netanel Miles-Yépez

Photo by Netanel Miles-Yépez from the  Día de los Muertos  exhibit at the Longmont Museum, 2014.

Photo by Netanel Miles-Yépez from the Día de los Muertos exhibit at the Longmont Museum, 2014.

When I was 18, I had an extraordinary dream. In the dream, I saw my grandfather sitting in a chair at a dining room table. Seated in front of him was my aunt feeding him his meal, carefully lifting each bite to his mouth. My grandfather was already an old man in his 80s when I knew him, and he lived with my aunt who took care of him; so there was not much out of the ordinary in this, except that he was never so feeble as to require feeding. What was extraordinary was that his face and hands were those of a skeleton. He was dressed like my grandfather, and even had his wavy mass of silver hair and his horn-rimmed glasses, but they sat on a living skull, whose boney jaw opened to receive the food, and even appeared to chew it as I watched!

But still more extraordinary was the fact that, at that time, I was almost totally unaware of and had no sense of the significance of this kind of imagery in Mexican culture. Though I am from a Mexican-American family, and may have seen such imagery while visiting Mexico as a child, I knew nothing of its connection to the family-oriented traditions of the Day of the Dead, or to the fact that we make offerings of food on this holiday, effectively, feeding the dead.

"Ajedrez/Chess" (Oil on Canvas, 2009) by Netanel Miles-Yépez. In this depiction of the dream, the author's grandfather is being a fed his queen by his daughter, the author's mother.

"Ajedrez/Chess" (Oil on Canvas, 2009) by Netanel Miles-Yépez. In this depiction of the dream, the author's grandfather is being a fed his queen by his daughter, the author's mother.

Was it somehow written in my DNA, or something percolating up from the Collective Unconscious? I really don’t know. What I do know is that this dream had a powerful impact on me, making the Day of the Dead an important motif in my artwork, a significant aspect of my spiritual life, and ultimately, a symbolic form of continuity with my ancestors and departed family.

Today, as our Hispanic population continues to grow, the Day of the Dead and its imagery is becoming more visible in the United States. It is also becoming more popular among many young Americans, who seem to have embraced it as a kind of transgressive challenge to conventional society and our collective fear of death. But what is the Day of the Dead really about? And what is the meaning of its unusual and sometimes unnerving imagery?

In Mexican culture, El Día de los Muertos, ‘the Day of the Dead,’ is a creative fusion of long-held indigenous beliefs and a Catholic Christian accommodation of them. Among the Aztecs, prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, death was governed by the Lord and Lady of the Dead in Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. The Queen of the Dead, Mictlancihuatl (Mikt-lan-see-watl), was seen as the caretaker of bones and the guide of spirits in the underworld. She was depicted by the Aztecs as a fleshless woman, a skeletal figure with an open jaw “to swallow the stars in the daytime.” In order for the dead to be accepted into Mictlan, offerings were made to the Lady of the Dead. Likewise, in her honor, the Aztecs held a month-long festival of the dead, which occurred in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, sometime around the beginning of August. Though the Catholic Church obviously tried to suppress such customs and beliefs, they were never entirely successful in Mexico. And today, we see echoes of the Lady of the Dead reemerging in the popular Catrina imagery of Mexico, and more seriously in the growing Santa Muerte veneration there.

The Lady of the Dead in Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, Mictlancihuatl (Mikt-lan-see-watl). Image from  "Mictlán: el lugar de los muertos"  by Luz Espinosa.

The Lady of the Dead in Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, Mictlancihuatl (Mikt-lan-see-watl). Image from "Mictlán: el lugar de los muertos" by Luz Espinosa.

Responding to the persistence of similar indigenous traditions among the laity in Europe, Catholic Christianity had already begun to accommodate such beliefs in the medieval period, fixing three special days in the Fall to change the focus back to a more acceptably Christian context. These days are: All Saints’ Eve (October 31st), All Saints’ Day (November 1st), and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd).

The first, of course, is well known in Western secular culture as Halloween, a word derived from All Hallows’ Evening. This day had originally achieved significance because the liturgical celebration of All Saints’ actually begins during the evening service the day before, on October 31st. All Saints’ Day is the day to officially remember and celebrate the holy example of all the saints of the Christian Church. Whereas, All Souls’ Day, the day after, is to remember and pray for all the “faithful departed.” However, what was officially sanctioned and intended by the Church was often quite different from how these days were conceived in the hearts of the people generally, especially where local custom and folk belief were maintained. 

Mixing pre-existing indigenous beliefs and customs with the Catholic tridu’um, or ‘three-day observance,’ Mexicans (and other Latin American peoples) created their own unique celebrations for honoring the dead. For Mexicans, these three days have become the Days of the Dead, Los Días de los Muertos. According to folk-belief in Mexico, the Days of the Dead actually begin sometime in early to mid-October. For this is the time, it is said, when the dead begin their long pilgrimage back to the world of the living, an idea that has some resonance with the journeys the dead were thought to take in Aztec belief. Thus, the three days which are usually thought of as the Days of the Dead are really just the time of their arrival in our world. Apparently, during this season, and these particular days—perhaps being at the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter—the veil between this world and the next world is thinner, and thus, it is easier for us to be in contact with the dead.

Image from the blogpost,  "When Death Delights: Dia De Los Muertos, Part 1"  by deadwrite

Image from the blogpost, "When Death Delights: Dia De Los Muertos, Part 1" by deadwrite

For the most part, October 31st is the time of final preparations for the arrival of the dead. November 1st is called, Día de los Inocentes (‘Day of the Innocents’), or Día de los Angelitos (‘Day of the Little Angels’), being the day of greeting those who died as children and infants. November 2nd, then, is Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, proper. (It seems that children run faster than adults, and thus arrive the day before, and I suppose, get to stay longer that way!)

Though customs vary from region-to-region, town-to-town, and family-to-family, it is common for Mexicans to go to the cemetery during these days to wash the stones and decorate them. We do this with flowers (traditionally marigolds), candles and incense, pictures of our loved-ones, mementos or objects associated with them, as well as food and drink they loved in their lifetime—all to draw and guide them back to us.

Often, this ritual takes on a festive atmosphere, as many families gather in the graveyard, playing and dancing to music loved by the departed, and telling stories of them—especially comic stories and anecdotes about their personal quirks—the things only we knew about them, the things that marked them as ours, and that only we, their family, can tell in the right spirit. Moreover, it is believed that the dead do not want us to be somber on this day, or to morn them. Rather, they would have us celebrate their lives and memories, for they are actually still alive . . . only on another plane of reality. Thus, on the Day of the Dead, we joke with and about them, just as we did in life! Often, these fiestas in the cemetery go on through the night, for the time with the dead is precious, and thus many people keep it as a vigil.

But the holiday is also observed in one’s home; for many Mexican families will also construct elaborate home altars called ofrendas, or ‘offerings,’ containing food and other items in honor of their loved-ones. Although the ofrenda may look like a religious altar for worship, it is actually a kind of spiritual memorial and a place of communion. It is the focal-point in our homes for ‘greeting’ our returned loved-ones. Thus, nearby, is sometimes a basin of water and a towel with which they can refresh themselves after their long journey. On the altar are photos and marigolds, pictures of saints and other religious imagery, as well as el pan de los muertos (‘the bread of the dead,’ sweet pastries in the shape of bones), calaveras de azucar (ornately decorated sugar skulls), salt and something for them to drink. If they enjoyed cigarettes, or tequila in their lifetime—like my abuelita, my ‘little grandmother’— you might also find that on the altar. The altar is not too sacred for such items. It is meant to be warm and inviting.

While we, as their families, may certainly enjoy our ofrendas, they are truly for the dead. They are the symbol of our continued communion with them. It is said that the dead consume the ‘spiritual substance’ of the objects and the food on the ofrendas, sharing the material substance with us. By displaying their pictures, we remind them that we have not forgotten them. By making these offerings in love, we demonstrate to them that they are still present in our hearts, and we ask them to continue their presence in our lives. We ask them to guide us through the difficulties of life with their other-worldly vision, and to intercede for us from the other side.

Photo by Netanel Miles-Yépez from the  Día de los Muertos  exhibit at the Longmont Museum, 2014.

Photo by Netanel Miles-Yépez from the Día de los Muertos exhibit at the Longmont Museum, 2014.

For this reason, a family will often have a more permanent, if somewhat less elaborate altar or ofrenda, year-round. For the dead are, according to Mexican belief, always with us. We remember them daily, speak to them when we need to, and even celebrate their death-anniversaries. (A kind of ‘birthday in heaven!’) This was something I learned very early when my abuelita, my grandmother, first taught me to say my prayers. She would put me to bed at night, and we would pray for my mother, my brother, my aunts and uncles, and each of my many cousins. But when we had finished praying for the living, we would then pray for the dead . . . for her mother and father, for her brothers and sisters, for my grandfather “in heaven,” and for my cousin who had been murdered. Somehow, it felt as if we were fulfilling a holy purpose with these prayers, giving something necessary to the souls of the dead, and I believe I slept more peacefully because of it.

It was not until I was older that I realized that most of the people I knew did not pray for their dead. The dead were just dead to them, or in a kind of heaven where they did not need our prayers, or in a hell where our prayers could not help them. But my grandmother’s heaven was not a place out of reach, not a place where the dead had nothing to do with us. Her heaven was a place of souls, where our ancestors and loved-ones dwelt together, a place where we could continue to speak to them, to offer them our love, and ask their help when we needed it.

You see, among many Mexicans and Latin-Americans, there is a sense that—la familia es sagrado—‘the family is sacred.’ That is not to say our families are perfect. They’re not. Nor are all Mexican families close. And yet, the sacredness of family is an ideal enshrined in our hearts, and which runs thick in our blood. We might fight amongst ourselves, but God help an outsider who dares to criticize a family member in our presence! I think it is because we know the difference between love and liking. Family is about love, and love is eternal. Liking passes from moment to moment. Sometimes I like you, sometimes I don’t. It depends on your behavior. But love is not so fickle. It’s what lies beneath, and fills the cracks between liking and dislike. It is what survives arguments and troubles. So we don’t confuse love with liking. We love our families—even when we don’t like them. And because family is about love, there are also people in our lives who become family—friends, partners, and spouses who enter into la familia, passing beyond the more ephemeral bonds of liking. We remember both on the Day of the Dead. And because la familia es sagrado, they stay in our lives, holy and inviolable, present both in our memories, and, in actuality, even after they have passed to the other side.

Photo by Netanel Miles-Yépez of the small  ofrenda  in the kitchen of his home, 2014.

Photo by Netanel Miles-Yépez of the small ofrenda in the kitchen of his home, 2014.

Nevertheless, we treat their continued presence in our lives, playfully, with boney and ironic depictions of them. Sometimes, non-Latinos are puzzled and disturbed by the pervasive calaveras, the decorative ‘skulls,’ and the calacas, the skeletal figures associated with the Day of the Dead. This is likely because these images represent something very different in European culture than they do in Latin America. Death, certainly, but not as something negative. In European culture, death imagery is often sinister, something to scare us on Halloween or in horror movies, or else it is associated with a morbid nature or an edgy, counter-cultural fixation and embrace of things which seem unacceptable to the culture at large. As the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz put it: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away; he looks at it face to face with impatience, disdain or irony.”[1] This is the feeling that pervades the Day of the Dead. It may not be absent of fear, but it does not run from it either. It embraces it, laughs at it, accepts it.

This awareness and acknowledgement of death in Mexican art and symbol is also used to bring some sense of balance to our lives. We see this in the everyday calacas, the skeletal art found throughout Mexico. A couple of examples: 

An engraving of partying  calacas  by José Guadalupe Posada

An engraving of partying calacas by José Guadalupe Posada

Among the most common expressions of death imagery in Mexican or Latino culture are the often comical dioramas and figurines placing skeletal figures in recognizable clothing and contexts that create a comic or absurd impression. These range from stand-alone figures, like Catrina dressed as a grande dame or skeletal mariachis (musicians) or soldaderos (soldiers), to scenes of drinking parties, musicians at play, and people at other amusements —playing tennis or even in bed together (as I saw once in Mexico a few years ago)!

To most people, these figures and scenes are merely comical, if somewhat incomprehensible, curiosities. People enjoy them, but are rarely aware of what they actually represent. These figurines and scenes are typically Mexican object lessons, full of ironic humor, saying, memento mori (Latin for ‘remember death’). For, as another Latin proverb says, media vita in morte sumus, ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ As we carry on, forgetful in our vain and often self-destructive amusements, death is always waiting for us, the one certainty. Thus, we are given humorous cautionary tales in these figures and dioramas, as if to say, “Go ahead, have your fun! But remember, you are really just drinking and dancing bones waiting for the graveyard!”

Some of the most famous illustrated calavera imagery comes from José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), a Mexican printmaker and political satirist of the late 19th and early 20th century. Posada's best-known works are of skeletal figures wearing various costumes, such as the Calavera de la Catrina, a vain and ridiculously dressed grande dame meant to satirize the extravagant life of the upper classes of that period in Mexico, who seemed to worship fashion and everything French. These depictions were meant to point out the ridiculousness of such pretentions to Mexican peasants who aspired to such dandi-ish dress and behavior. Posada’s Catrina, was later picked up and used by Diego Rivera in his mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alemeda Central, and, in time, was drawn into public Day of the Dead celebrations, assuming an altogether different stature as the Lady of the Dead (perhaps echoing Mictlancihuatl, which is perhaps natural, given the ever-present undercurrents of Lady Death in indigenous Mexico).

 A detail from  Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alemeda Central  (mural, 1947) by Diego Rivera. Rivera is pictured as a little boy on the bottom left, with his wife, Frida Kahlo, above him, holding a yin and yang symbol.

 A detail from Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alemeda Central (mural, 1947) by Diego Rivera. Rivera is pictured as a little boy on the bottom left, with his wife, Frida Kahlo, above him, holding a yin and yang symbol.

In the end, we come back to this basic fact: “Fear,” as Octavio Paz writes, “makes us turn our backs on death, and by refusing to contemplate it we shut ourselves off from life, which is a totality that includes it.”[2] When the Mexican or Latino says, La Vida—‘Life’—they mean something more than life as opposed to death, but life and death together! Life, with a capital L, is the totality that contains both. “Nuestra muerte ilumina nuestra vida.” “Our deaths illuminate our lives.”[3] Thus, El Día de los Muertos is amongst the most holy, and the most human of all our holidays. We are reminded of how precious is life, and how sacred our relationships with the people we love most. And not least, we are reminded of how death cannot steal our joy if we embrace it and keep the connection to the dead.


* Netanel Miles-Yépez is a poet, artist, and Sufi spiritual teacher residing in Boulder, Colorado. This article is based on a talk delivered at the Lafayette Public Library, October 12th, 2014.

[1] Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, trans. Lysander Kemp, Yara Milos, and Rachel Phillips Belash (New York: Grove Press, 1985): 57-58.

[2] Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1985): 79. In Spanish, "El miedo nos hace volver el rostro, darle la espalda a la muerte. Y al negarnos a contemplarla, nos cerramos fatalmente a la vida, que es una totalidad que la lleva en si." Octavio Paz, El Laberinto de la soledad y otras obras (New York: Penguin Books, 1997): 83.

[3] Paz, El Laberinto de la soledad y otras obras (1997): 75. Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1985): 54.

The Jack-o’Lantern and Jesus

By Tessa Bielecki

A Deeper Look at Halloween (Reposted from

All my life I’ve loved Halloween. I have fond childhood memories of my favorite costumes: the gypsy, draped in soft flowing scarves, wearing earrings long before I was old enough in “real” life; the pirate, with a black patch over one eye, front teeth and chin blackened with charcoal; the Japanese princess, wearing chrysanthemums my mother cut from the backyard and pinned to each side of my head. In my adult life I’ve continued to enjoy Halloween. The pirate remains a favorite costume, but I’ve also added the clown, a Spanish flamenco dancer one year, and more recently, a mime dressed all in black and white except for a red cap.

Even as a child I had a vague sense that there was something deep and mysterious about Halloween. As I grew older, I became progressively haunted by that sense of “something more.” In recent years I’ve come to understand consciously and theologically what I subconsciously intuited as a child.

The depth of meaning revolves around the jack-o’-lantern. Whenever I see one, my heart rejoices. Psychologist Carl Jung teaches us to pay careful attention to signs, symbols, and myths that trigger powerful emotions. So I’ve continued to explore why the jack-o’-lantern makes my heart soar. Surely there’s more to it than my love of crisp autumn air, the color orange, and Halloween costumes.

Pagan Roots

The origins of Halloween date back to the Druidic Celts who lived all over Europe between 1000 and 100 B.C. until conquered by Julius Caesar and absorbed by Rome. The Celtic New Year’s Eve Festival was called Samhain (literally “summer’s end” and pronounced “Sah-ween”) and began at sunset on October 3l, continuing through the night until dawn on November l, first day of the Celtic New Year. With the autumn harvest came the dying of the year as well as the dying of the land, the coming of the dark season, and the cold of winter, under the rule of Samhain, Lord of the Dead.

Before the Festival of Samhain (also the Celtic name for the winter season), the people stored their summer crops and secured their livestock for the winter, moving cattle, sheep, and horses to closer pastures. They slaughtered surplus cattle for the feast and burned the bones in “bone fires.” The “bonfires” were also kindled in honor of the departed Sun God. Julius Caesar describes more terrifying aspects of the Samhain celebration when the Druids burned wicker cages of men, women, and animals, along with bread, wine, and honey, seeking the gods’ favor by sacrificing their most valuable gifts. Horses were sacrificed, too, until the seventh century when Pope Gregory the Great issued a decree against it, suggesting that the people kill oxen instead for food “to the praise of God, and give thanks to the Giver of all gifts for His bounty.”

Celtic Day of the Dead

At Samhain, more than any other time of the year, the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead mingled with the living. On this night, the souls of those who had died the year before traveled to the underworld. The bright bonfires served a dual purpose and expressed both the Celtic people’s fear and awe of the dead. On the one hand, the fires honored the dead and aided them on their journey. Room was made around the fire for the wandering souls to warm themselves, and food and drink were laid out for them as well. In their compassion, the living Celts sought to comfort the departed spirits in their pain.

But the Celts also feared the dead. The God Samhain transformed those who had died in sin into animals, and this night he summoned them for judgment. He would decide if they were to remain in animal form for another year or be allowed to enter paradise. On trial and angered by their animal state, the souls of the dead hovered in the air, capable of great mischief and wicked tricks. So the Celts dressed as animals themselves and danced through the night, hoping to lead the ghosts into paradise at dawn. And they kept their bonfires burning to protect themselves from the dead.

All Saints and All Souls

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved the feast of All Saints’ Day, “All Hallows” or “All the Holy”, from May l3 to November l. October 31, All Hallows’ Evening, became All Hallows’ E’en, and finally Halloween.

In the ninth century, November 2 became All Souls’ Day, the Christian Day of the Dead, when the living pray for the souls of the departed. In Medieval England, people went “a soulin’” and prayed for the souls of the dead in exchange for a piece of “soul cake.” For years I enjoyed this song at Christmas instead of Halloween and never understood its significance:

Soul! Soul! Soul cake;
Please, good mistress, a soul cake,
Apple, pear, plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry;
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him that made us all.

The ending lines, which I only recently learned, hint at the contemporary custom of “tricking” if not given a “treat”: “Up with your kettle and down with your pan; Give me a good big one, and I’ll be gone.”

Halloween in America

According to the research of Michael Judge, the Protestant Reformation almost extinguished the observance of Halloween: “Reformist churches banned Halloween celebrations as satanic rituals and claimed that the Catholic Church, in allowing them to continue for so long, revealed itself as a heathen institution.” Halloween became widespread in America only after the mid-l9th century arrival of Irish Catholics. These survivors of the great potato famine of l848 were a welcome antidote to the Puritans of Colonial America who equated Halloween with superstition and black magic.

The American Irish, descendents of the ancient Celts, kept the traditional observances of Halloween and gave us the jack-o’-lantern. In Ireland these Samhain lanterns were carved out of potatoes or turnips and commemorated “Jack,” an Irish rogue so villainous that neither heaven nor hell wanted him, and he was doomed to wander endlessly, looking for a place to rest. It is unclear to me whether “Jack” was the potato or the potato lit his way, welcoming him as the early Celts welcomed lost souls around their bonfires. Some say that the face carved into the vegetable was the face of a loved one who had died in need of prayer. It is definitely clear, however, that the native American pumpkin makes a bigger and far more glorious jack-o’-lantern than a potato or a turnip!

The celebration of Halloween is seriously threatened today by conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. We’re told to avoid commemorating this day because it’s pagan and not Christian; because it’s childish and therefore foolish; because it’s satanic and evil. As Michael Judge laments: “It’s ironic that Halloween, which managed to make it as a genuine pagan remnant through so many centuries in a devoutly Catholic Europe, should be threatened in a society with a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.” We need to “save” Halloween by embracing the deeper Christian truths it embodies.

Childish or Childlike?

In my fat file folder on Halloween I keep my favorite quote from Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s done in exquisite calligraphy by our friend, Michelle Reineck, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who also loves Halloween and dresses up like a witch to both the dread and delight of the trick-or-treaters who come to her door. Michelle topped the quote with a bright orange pumpkin sticker and did the lettering in both orange and black, the traditional Halloween colors. Orange is the color of the autumn harvest, black the color of death. The passage from Kazantzakis reflects the spirit of Halloween as reflected in the Christian Scriptures: “Everyone needs a little bit of madness. Otherwise we’ll never be able to cut the rope and be free.” St. Paul echoes the “virtue” of madness when he tells us to become “fools for Christ.” In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

“Here we are, fools for the sake of Christ…Make no mistake about it: if any one of you thinks of himself as wise, in the ordinary sense of the word, then he must learn to be a fool before he can be wise. Why? Because the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God….For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 4:10, 18-19; 1 Cor. 1:25).

In the paradoxical strength of weakness and the wisdom of foolishness, Jesus called a little child to him and set the child in front of his disciples. “Unless you change and become like little children,” he said, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:1-4). Jesus also exclaimed: “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children” (Mt. 1l:25). When we celebrate Halloween, then, we are not childish but childlike in the Gospel sense; foolish perhaps in the eyes of the world, but wise in God’s eye; not puritanical but supremely Catholic, which also means a bit pagan and Druidic as well.

Overcoming Evil and Fear

Some people are afraid to celebrate Halloween because they believe it’s satanic. A concerned friend sent me the following passage from a contemporary witch: “Not only is Halloween one of our grandest feasts, it is also our biggest laugh on Christians. While we celebrate a Black Mass, sacrifice live animals and drink their blood, and give homage to Satan our glorious king, Christians all over the world are helping us by having Halloween parties and dressing up as devils, goblins and witches. With them unknowingly supporting our cause for evil, his power is multiplied.”

To me this seems like empty boasting. Yes, the devil is real. The power of evil is real, lurking both “out there” and inside each of us. We must be aware of real satanic cults who abuse animals or children for ritual purposes, especially on October 31.
Does this mean that Christians should cringe in fear and not celebrate Halloween? I think it means we should celebrate the day even more as the Christians’ “biggest laugh” on Satan and his cults! When we celebrate Halloween, we do not support Satan’s “cause for evil.” We celebrate the power of the Risen Christ who overcame the devil and the power of evil, the power of fear and death.

Our faith assures us of this. Psalm 91 insists that we “not fear the terror of the night…not the pestilence that roams in darkness…No evil shall befall you…For to his angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways.” And we pray in the much loved 23rd Psalm: “Even though I walk in the valley of darkness I fear no evil; for you are at my side.” “Be not afraid,” we sing at Mass in one of my favorite hymns. “Be not afraid, I go before you, come, follow me.”

Throughout his Good News, Jesus reminds us again and again that we need not fear, but nowhere more eloquently than in his Last Supper discourse: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me….Do not be afraid…. The prince of this world is on his way. He has no power over me…. I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world” (John 14:1, 27, 30; 16:33).

St. Teresa once said that she was more afraid of people who were afraid of the devil than she was of the devil himself! Me, too. I’m more concerned about people who are afraid of Halloween because of satanic influences that I am of those influences.

When we dress like a red devil on Halloween, we do not empower Satan but mock him as a silly little imp who cringes and whimpers in the presence of Jesus like the Gadarene demoniacs: “What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us…?” (Mt. 9:29). When we dress like ghosts or skeletons, we mock death because we believe that Christ has conquered and reversed death by rising from the tomb, as we, too, shall be raised from the dead. We laugh with St. Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” (1Cor. 15:55).

The Laughter of Christ

In his tiny book, The Humor of Christ, Quaker writer Elton Trueblood inspires us with the proper Christian attitude towards Halloween, though he did not have Halloween specifically in mind:

“Any alleged Christianity which fails to express itself in [joy], at some point, is clearly spurious. The Christian is [joyful], not because he is blind to injustice and suffering, but because he is convinced that these, in the light of the divine sovereignty, are never ultimate….Though he can be sad, and often is perplexed, he is never really worried. The well-known humor of the Christian is not a way of denying the tears, but rather a way of affirming something which is deeper than tears.

Far from laughter being incompatible with anguish, it is often the natural expression of deep pain….’Terror’, says Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘is closely connected with the ludicrous; the latter is the common mode by which the mind tries to emancipate itself from terror. The laugh is rendered by nature itself the language of extremes, even as tears are.’ It is not possible to have genuine humor or true wit without an extremely sound mind, which is always a mind capable of high seriousness and a sense of the tragic….Kierkegaard echoed this conclusion when he said that the comic and the tragic touch each other at the absolute point of infinity.”

This spirit of Christian comedy, laughter, and joy makes me celebrate Halloween as an Easter in the autumn! Christ is risen from the dead. As St. John Chrysostom said in his Easter Sermon: “Now hell is a joke, finished, done with.” As we hear in the Easter Exsultet: “Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes forever! Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory! The risen Savior shines upon you!”

According to St. Augustine, “We are an Easter people, and our song is alleluia!” (Note all the exclamation points here.) Tom Renaud describes the same triumph in one of his Easter songs:

“Love is risen from the tomb of pain
Love is risen from the cross of shame
Love is risen from the dragon’s den
Love can never die again.”

Smiling Jack

I’ve finally come to understand why I love jack-o’-lanterns so much, especially the smiling ones. Jack represents the risen Christ! Jack is Jesus! I’m haunted by Halloween because it’s Easter! More lines from Tom’s music express this mystery:

Now the laughter of the risen Lord,
Comes like the flash of a sword….
Now the singing of a single man,
Can smash the stranglehold of death’s dark hand….
In the light of morning, his laughter cracked the sky;
It echoes through the ages, and his reign will never die.

The jack-o’-lantern proclaims the Resurrection. The jack-o’-lantern glows with light in the darkness because Jesus is the “Morning Star who came back from the dead,” the Light of the world, “the lamp of endless day.” The jack-o’-lantern may well be that villainous Irish rogue or other lost souls wandering in the dark, but Jack-Jesus brings them into the light of his fiery sacred heart where they find rest, as we say in our most popular prayer for the dead: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.”

This is the depth we celebrate on Halloween when we dress up in costumes and party or go trick-or-treating, when we light roaring bonfires, when we carve pumpkins, make jack-o’-lanterns and fill them with the light of Christ. So a jack-o’-lantern candle sits on my desk all year round, not only because I love Halloween, but because it has profoundly Christic significance.

Invitando a las Almas de los Muertos

By Netanel Miles-Yépez

Translation by Lucia Gastaldi

Cuando era un niño mi abuelita me ponía a dormir y decía sus oraciones conmigo, todas las noches orábamos por mi madre, mi hermano, mis tíos y cada uno de mis primos. Y cuando terminábamos de orar por los vivos entonces orábamos por los muertos, por sus padres, sus hermanos, por  mi abuelo que estaba en el cielo y por mi primo quien había sido asesinado. Recuerdo como me sentía, era como si estuviéramos cumpliendo un propósito sagrado con estas oraciones, al ofrecerle algo necesario a las almas de los difuntos  yo dormía más tranquilo. No fue hasta que me hice mayor que me di cuenta de que la mayoría de la gente que conocía no le rezaba a sus muertos. Los muertos eran simplemente muertos para ellos. O era una especie de paraíso donde los muertos no necesitaban nuestras oraciones o un infierno donde nuestras oraciones no les podían ayudar. Pero el cielo de mi abuela no era un lugar fuera de alcance donde los muertos no tenían nada que ver con nosotros. Su cielo era el lugar de las almas, donde nuestros ancestros y seres queridos vivian juntos, un lugar donde nosotros podíamos seguir hablando con ellos para ofrecerles nuestro amor y pedirles ayuda cuando lo necesitáramos.

Es esta creencia, esta visión del mundo espiritual que da vida a El día de los muertos en la cultura mexicana. Cada año el 2 de noviembre corresponde al  día de todas las almas, en la iglesia católica mucha gente cree que los muertos hacen un largo viaje de regreso desde mundo espiritual para estar con nosotros aquí en la tierra. Por lo tanto la gente va  al cementerio a lavar y decorar sus tumbas, muchas veces llevan comida al cementerio para pasar tiempo con sus difuntos.

En México se llevan a cabo grandes fiestas en el cementerio hasta el anochecer,  la gente canta y baila en medio de velas colocadas en la tumba. En las casas se realizan altares y hacen ofrendas de comida y otros objetos in honor a nuestros seres queridos para hacer que su viaje valga la pena.

Aunque la ofrenda puede verse como un altar para culto religioso, en realidad es un monumento espiritual y un lugar de comunión. Es el punto focal en nuestras casas para saludar a nuestros seres queridos a veces hay cerca una vasija con agua y una toalla con la cual ellos pueden refrescarse de su largo viaje. En el altar se encuentra a menudo el pan de muerto, pasteles dulces en forma de huesos, sal y algo para que ellos beban. Si a ellos les gustaba el tequila en su vida como a mi abuelita se puede encontrar también en el altar.

Los altares que se realizan y las ofrendas son realmente tanto para ellos como lo son para nosotros. Son el símbolo de la comunión con los difuntos. Se dice que los difuntos consumen de la comida la sustancia espiritual y la comparten con nosotros. Al mostrar sus fotos les recordamos que no los hemos olvidado. Al hacer ofrendas de amor les demostramos que aún están presentes en nuestros corazones y les pedimos que sigan estando presentes en nuestras vidas, les pedimos que nos guíen a través de su visión de las dificultades de la vida e intercedan por nosotros desde el otro lado. Por lo tanto el día de muertos es un día de los más sagrados y los más humanos de nuestros días festivos. Nos recuerda de lo preciosa que es la vida y lo sagrado de nuestras relaciones con la gente que amamos. Y al menos recordamos que la muerte no puede robar nuestra alegría si la aprovechamos y mantenemos la conexión con la muerte.