EL DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS: Wilkes professor offers insight

Dr. Rafael Garcia, Guest Columnist

I have been teaching Spanish for four years at Wilkes University. As we approach the end of October, students often ask me about el día de los muertos, which means “the Day of the Dead,” and it seems to be the “Spanish” version of Halloween.

I have to tell them that it is not a tradition that we have in Spain, my country of origin, and only few years ago it was as exotic to me as it might be to any American not familiar with it.

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday originally celebrated in the southern and central regions of Mexico, but it has spread to the whole country because of the educational policies of the government of Mexico in the second half of the 20th century.

On this day, people get together with family and friends to remember and pray for the loved ones who have died, in the hope that prayer will help them in their spiritual journey. Day of the Dead, however, doesn’t have a serious, gloomy air, but a festive tone.

The Day of the Dead is now a public national holiday in Mexico. It is interesting to note that the origin of this celebration precedes the Spanish colonization for more than thousands of years.

It used to be celebrated at the beginning of summer but, as a consequence of the Christianization of the region, it was moved to October 31st, November 1st and 2nd to make it coincide with the Catholic feast days of All Saints Day on November 1st and All Departed Souls Day on November 2nd.

People spend the day at the cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed. It is a perfect occasion to show artistic skills in painting, carving, dancing and even literature. People build colorful altars and shrines that are abundantly decorated with many different kinds of ornaments, flowers (especially marigolds), photos, memorabilia, paintings, crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints and even food, usually the favorite food of the departed.

The belief is that the spirits of the dead will eat the spiritual essence of the ofrendas (this is the Spanish word for the food offered to the dead) but the celebrators will later eat the food once the festivities are over. Pillows and blankets are provided for the deceased to rest after their long journey.

No wonder this celebration found some resistance among Christians, because it is perceived as a syncretic Christian celebration still containing pagan elements.

It appears that in every culture there has always been some kind of day of the dead and it was usually observed as a part of the autumnal rites, when the last harvests had been collected.

In Christian Europe, Catholicism assimilated this pagan tradition and it became All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But for some reason, in Mexico the assimilation was not complete and elements from its pagan origin still remain.

The Day of the Dead has crossed the boundaries of Mexico and has spread to the United States and other countries. It´s likely to become more and more popular for the years to come.