We sat down with Father George Woodward of St. Paul's Anglican Church, the largest expat church in San Miguel, to talk about the spiritual side of this mystical holiday.
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Can you give us a quick history lesson on the Dia de Los Muertos holiday?
With the arrival of Spaniards to Mexico in the 15th Century, a slow fusion developed between indigenous Mesoamerican beliefs and the Roman Catholicism of the colonizers. Ancestor worship and the near presence of the departed were prominent components of many branches of indigenous spiritual practice in Mesoamerica, and merged easily with the Christian Feast Days of All Saints' (November 1) and All Souls' (November 2).
One indigenous group, the Aztecs, observed October 31 as a special day to remember, celebrate and commune with unborn children who had died during pregnancy, and those who had died in early infancy. This made for seamless fusion with the Feast Days of the Christian calendar.
The vibrant indigenous belief that there are "thin places" and "thin times" between this realm and the after-life meant that the dead could sometimes come to visit, and this dimension of indigenous belief colored and brightened...and sometimes eclipsed...other aspects of the Christian Triduum.
Halloween is an American holiday celebrated during the same timeframe. Do these two holidays celebrate the same concepts?
The Puritans who settled what became the United States were not fond of the Feast Days of the Anglican Church or of the Roman Catholic Church, and suppressed their celebration wherever possible.
It was in the British Isles that the Feast of All Saints' and All Soul's were first celebrated as Christianity fused with indigenous Celtic practices surrounding Sanheim, much as later occurred in Mesoamerica. The celebration of the All Saints' Triduum was later recognized throughout Western Christianity and was well-established by the 10th Century.
With the influx of Irish immigrants to the United States in the 29th Century, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, arrived and rapidly spread across the American Continent. There are a great many parallels between Celtic Halloween and Mexican Day of the Dead, though many of the spiritual components of Halloween / All Hallow's Eve have been lost in America and replaced by secular festivities which pay little heed to spiritual antecedents.
[Read more about the interesting connection between Mexico and the Irish here].
Christian holidays, All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd are very solemn. El Dia de Los Muertos is a lively celebration. Is it possible to be solemn and celebratory at the same time? Is this what we observe here in Mexico?
The Triduum of All Saints' begins on October 31st with All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween, and it must be said that many of the festal aspects of October 31 continue in the U.S. even if the religious significance is not given much attention.
All Saints' Day (November 1) is the only one of the seven major Christian Feasts which may be transferred to the following Sunday in the Anglican and Roman Traditions. Hence, this year the Feast of All Saints' will be celebrated on November 4th, after the actual Triduum!
The observation of the Feast of All Saints' is festive, in that the liturgical color is White for resurrection, and the names of those who have died since All Saints' Day the year previous are often included in the Canon of the Mass.
It is true that All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are no where nearly so raucous in the U.S. and Canada as they are in Mexico!
In California I bear witness that aspects of the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead are increasingly a part of that State's American culture. We always had a Dia de Los Muertos Altar up and decorated for a week in my Episcopalian Parish in San Marino, as did most of the Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Fusion of tradition continues!
It is said that during the Dia de Los Muertos holiday, the veil between the spiritual world and the physical world becomes thinner, and because of this, we can be visited by the spirits of the departed. From a Christian perspective, is this indeed possible?
I must say I have insufficient knowledge of the particularities of the next life to have much of an opinion as to whether the dead, who have moved to the eternal realm, are able to pay us visits, especially at "thin times" when the veil between lifts a bit. I find it a congenial notion, and celebrate Dia de Los Muertos with a personal Altar with candles and photos of my dead beloveds.
I personally tend to think of this as a memorial and celebration of those I love who have pressed forward to the eternal realm rather than a hope for a visitation, though somehow my Father's favorite glass of single-malt scotch has always disappeared by morning!
Will you be celebrating Dia de Los Muertos this year? If so, how?
This is my first year in Mexico for the observations of Dia de Los Muertos, and I am excited to join in these congenial celebrations. I'm going to buy lots of candy to distribute to children in the Jardin and try to attend events in the local parks and gardens and cemeteries.
At St. Paul's, a Dia de Los Muertos Altar will adorn the Chapel from October 28 to November 4th, when we will bless the Altar with Incense on the Sunday celebration of All Saints' Day. And I'll have to toast my Daddy with a good glass of single-malt!