Life and death, fact and fiction: this is the Day of the Dead, a holiday that has been celebrated in many cultures for centuries. The early morning of the 1st of November is the time when these cultures honor their dead. Each country has its own mix of religious rites and pagan rituals. Here’s a look at how it is celebrated in five different countries:
If there’s one country that comes to mind when we think of the Day of the Dead, it’s Mexico, whose festivities have been declared Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. The origins date back to the pre-Columbian period. The ancient rituals were presided over by the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, known as “Lady Death” and wife of Mictlantecuhtli, the lord of the land of the dead. As part of the ritual, skulls kept as trophies were put on display and there was singing and dancing to venerate the deceased and pray for good luck in the land of the living.
Nowadays, when people visit the graves of their loved ones they bring offerings such as cempaxúchitl flowers (marigolds) or foods that the deceased was fond of, in order to invoke their spirits. In different parts of Mexico like Oaxaca, Mixquic and Pátzcuaro, the ceremonies attract thousands of people, who come out to remember their deceased friends and family members.
In Europe, the birthplace of Day of the Dead celebrations can be traced to Ireland. The origin of western-style Halloween celebrations is “Samhain”, a Celtic holiday that falls on October 31st and means “the end of the harvest”. It represents the moment when villagers would store their provisions and sacrifice the livestock they would need to survive the winter. To scare the evil spirits away they would build large bonfires to protect the living.
Modern day Halloween celebrations are much more pagan and epicurean in nature. At this time of year people in Ireland typically eat a traditional fruitcake called Barm Brack which, like the Spanish Roscón de Reyes, also contains a hidden prize. A ring hidden inside the cake means you’ll marry soon, while a straw means you’ll have a prosperous year. Along with their barm brack the Irish drink Lambswool, a traditional cider-based beverage.
The United States:
Imported directly from Ireland, Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve has become one of the most important holidays in the US (and one of the world’s most iconic annual events). Halloween has retained its liturgical significance as a day to remember the dead. However, what most people think of when they hear the word Halloween are carved pumpkins, skulls and spider webs and a day to dress in black and orange.
The practice of dressing up as monsters, ghosts, zombies and assorted other-worldly creatures has been popularized by movies and TV. For children, Halloween is all about trick-or-treating, a day when they dress up in costumes and go door-to-door through the neighbourhood asking for candy and treats from the neighbours.
If you’re looking for the quintessential Halloween party, look no further than New York City. Every year, the New York City Village Halloween Parade, which started in 1974, attracts thousands of people dressed in costumes who gather at 6th Avenue for a parade through Greenwich Village.
— AllHalloweener (@AllHalloweener) 11 de septiembre de 2016
In Salem (Massachusetts), the city made infamous worldwide for its witch hunts, the annual Festival of the Dead is a mix of music, mediums and fortune tellers that is so popular among the locals that many of them go to great lengths to recreate cemeteries in their yards.
Thanks to globalization it is now possible to learn about and embrace the traditions and cultural practices of other countries all over the world. In Spain, All Saints Day is a good example of this and the influence which American and British traditions have had on the country in recent years. This holiday has evolved from a purely religious celebration intended to honour the dead by visiting the cemetery and placing flowers on their graves to one that feels more and more like a US-style Halloween party every year. Take, for example, the costume party at the Barceló Montecastillo Hotel, housed in a 19th century castle in Jerez (Cádiz), where the spirits come alive in a terrifyingly delightful celebration that includes ghost stories in the dark for the youngest guests and cooking classes with pumpkin-based recipes. Other activities include an American-style Zombie Ball Party and horror movies.
Mahalaya is a Hindu festival of conciliation with one’s ancestors which goes by the lunar calendar and usually occurs in late October or early November. This is the time of year when Indian people invoke the dead with prayers and in doing so put the souls of their deceased loved ones to rest until the next meeting with their descendants.
In this case, the liturgy is purely religious with no pagan components. The families of the deceased pray to the god Durga to keep the demons away and protect both the living and the dead.