Our association with Halloween is one of costumes and ghost stories, sweets and trick or treat. However, the religious roots of this now commercial enterprise can be found as far back as the fourth century church at Antioch, and more recently from Mexican Catholic tradition.
Originally, All Saint’s Day was a celebration that took place on the first Sunday after Pentecost to honour martyrs of the Christian faith. The growing influence of the Western church saw All Saints Day moved to May 13th by Pope Boniface IV in the seventh century. By the ninth century the celebrations included all Christian saints, martyred or not, and the date moved again to November 1st.
Changing the date was significant, as the church sought to assimilate the ancient, pagan commemorations of the deceased that many European clans celebrated. The church included a vigil the night before the festival, called All Hallows Eve (Halloween). Many of the old European traditions of honouring the departed were retained.
This night vigil saw the faithful devote themselves to praying and fasting. A Mass was held and prayers offered to the saints and the Virgin Mary.
The more interesting aspects of this observance comes from the traditions of Mexico. Dia de los Muertos is a festival that spans two days. It is a mixture of pre-Columbian traditions and Catholicism. This first day is dedicated to departed children, the angelitos, or Little Angles. The second day is devoted to adults.
Traditions for these days are colourful, joyous and continue to this day. Families gather at the graves of the departed in large parades and decorate the sites with wreaths, candles, seasonal flowers (including the zempasuchil—an Indian word for a particular type of marigold) and special alters of remembrance. Fireworks are also used to celebrate the lives of the deceased.
Food is also a very important aspect in this tradition of remembering the departed. One of the most decorative and delicious foods is the rich coffee cake, known as the pan de muerto. This scrumptious cake is elaborately decorated with meringues and other sweets. Many kinds of food are consumed by the visiting relatives. The deceased’s favorite foods and drinks are always left behind for them.
While some of the decorations and designs of All Saints Day can seem macabre to us, Mexicans do not fear such imagery and see these celebrations as a way of respecting the circle of life. For Mexicans, departing this world is not mocked or feared, but is seen as another step in the grand tradition of the Christian resurrection.