Day of the Dead: Cultural Interchange

“Celebrations like Día de los Muertos are gaining popularity in the U.S. because the spiritual awareness gives integrity to the festivities that have been denuded of spiritual meaning.  The only way to keep the integrity of the holiday is to retain its primary purpose: the unification of the communion of saints and a cheeky nod to death.”

-Meghan Barylak, CatholicVote.org

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At the beginning of the Mexican Grand Prix on Sunday, there was a “Day of the Dead” parade.  I use quotes around that, because, as my Mexican husband so accurately put it, “That’s not how we celebrate Day of the Dead.”

Granted, these were Mexicans organizing and performing in this Day of the Dead parade.  So, how is that NOT how Mexicans do it?  (OK, to be honest, I believe this Day of the Dead parade was inspired by the James Bond Spectre movie.)

There’s an interesting cultural interchange around this time of year, one that Ms. Barylak hit on–Americans* are taking a real interest in incorporating Day of the Dead into their traditions and Mexicans are embracing Halloween.

Darth CalacaBut then again, this popular celebration of Day of the Dead often turns into a backlash against Halloween.  At my kids’ preschool, they were required to dress up at the end of October/beginning of November–but they had to be skeletons (or, better put, catrines--well dressed skeletons).  Now on one had, that’s wonderful, because I don’t think it’s at all appropriate for preschoolers to ever see the type of gore that’s on display EVERYWHERE for Halloween.  In fact, it’s not appropriate for anyone.

Furthermore, this is a Mexican preschool, where students go to learn to be well-educated Mexican citizens.  Yes, learning about other cultures is important.  In fact, that’s more of less the theme of my life.  But, for a country like Mexico, whose own traditions are being squeezed out by a thrills-based, shock-and-awe “holiday” like Halloween, some of the changes that have taken place in the celebration of Day of the Dead are simply a means of reclaiming cultural identity over that usurper, Halloween.

What do I mean by that?

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The F1/Mexico City Day of the Dead parade is a prime example.  The Day of the Dead isn’t traditionally celebrated by parades, shows, displays, etc.  It’s a quiet, family holiday.  (Well, as quiet as it’s possible for Mexican families to be.)  People go to the cemeteries to pray for their loved ones.  That’s really about it.

Yes, there are plenty of prehispanic symbolisms and customs that may be incorporated.  But, the average family just takes time to pray for their family members.  Some make an altar to remember a family member.   Institutions make those showy altars loaded with prehispanic symbolism.  Generally speaking–in my limited, urban experience–families don’t.  We do set out pictures.  But that’s it.

Keep in mind, Mexico is a large country with a lot of diversity.  Plenty of families will celebrate in lots of different ways.  Some families are more tied to those prehispanic roots than mine.  But most Mexicans live in the cities, and most of Mexico is pretty Catholic, so most of us just pray.  Again, that’s my experience.  And, my Mexican husband’s.

Why We Celebrate Day of the Dead

It’s a good time to reflect this life is finite.

It’s a good time for continue to grieve for those we’ve lost.  Particularly if we never finished the grieving process in the immediate aftermath of that death.

It’s a good time to remember to trust ourselves, our family, and our futures to God.  We don’t know how long our life will be.  We don’t know what comes next.  But God does.  He’s proven that he loves us, he’s proven that he’s faithful.

He’s proven that we can trust him with the unknown.

Cultural Observations

So back to Meghan Barylak’s quote at the beginning:  she claims that Americans are increasingly drawn to Day of the Dead, as it provides a much needed space in American culture to think about (and acknowledge) death.  She claims it’s the spiritual aspect that draws people in, perhaps because people are looking for something real in the unknown.

I hope that’s the case.

Meanwhile, perhaps because of the US’s new fascination with Day of the Dead, perhaps as a backlash against Halloween (or affirmation of Mexican culture), or simply a means of taking the spirituality out of the holiday, the Day of the Dead is now being celebrated for entertainment value, with parades and contests and parties.

Now, I’m not out to judge anyone–I’m just trying to make some cultural observations.
Because this US fascination with Day of the Dead and the Mexican commercialization of Day of the Dead is pretty interesting.  They may stem from the same source.  Then again, those sources may be completely divergent.

Either way, I hope this season makes a space for us to be aware of the reality of death without celebrating death itself.

Making fun of death?  Sure.

Celebrating it?  Nope.

After all, as Paul put it, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1Cor. 15:26)

What’s the Point?

Now, I’m not picking at those who enjoy entertainment, want to party, etc.  That’s great!  Have a good time!

I’m just concerned that the spiritual aspect, which has been central to the celebration of the Day of the Dead for centuries in both Catholic culture and prehispanic culture is beginning to be overlooked.

After all, as Meghan Barylak pointed out in the quote in the beginning, it just may be that spiritual aspect (which is largely lacking from our current celebrations of Halloween) that is drawing Americans to Day of the Dead.  It would be a real shame for popular culture in Mexico to forget those strong spiritual roots.

This probably isn’t the case for most Mexicans . . . but it does appear that they way we’re celebrating the holiday is changing.  Much like the call to put Christ back into Christmas, let’s not forget to remember our dead on Day of the Dead.

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*Americans–for the sake of simplicity, I’m referring to US citizens/residents here.  Yes, everyone from the tip of Canada to the tip of Chile is an American.   Just like all those from Morocco to Namibia are Africans.   However, us poor gringos have no other word to define ourselves besides “American”.  Except gringo.

But that’s just silly–and a whole other can of worms, too.

So take some pity on us and let me call us Americans here!

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