On 1-2 November each year, Mexico sets the stage for a countrywide event. With a richness of colour, creativity, musical magnificence and culinary excellence, these celebrations exhibit ancient cultural traditions and imagery. Since 2008, it’s even been added to UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The focus of this celebration? Death.
To find out what it’s really like and the impact it has, we interviewed Latin Link members Joel Gomez and Mayra Gonzalez and their pastor, Gabriel Borja, at Communidad Cristiana de Puebla, Mexico.
Where did it begin?
Pastor Gabriel: ‘The Mexican national holiday known as the Day of the Dead is celebrated on 1-2 November each year, and for these two days, the country’s usual activities come to a standstill. The precise reason why banks, school and shops close is not always that well known locally and is obscured by many tales and legends. To the foreign eye, it must be very puzzling to see a whole nation devote themselves to celebrating death!
‘To discover why, we need to look into the ancient Catholic tradition of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. During this event, people remember the passing of saints, close friends and relatives. A special evening mass gives space for grief and mourning. Faithful followers come with photographs of their loved ones, and together they share the pain of loss, but take hope in Christ’s glorious resurrection and the future resurrection of saints.
‘Curiously, this same date was also celebrated during the pre-Hispanic times. Mayans, Mexicas and Purepechas – all indigenous groups – would perform rituals, honouring their goddess Mictecacíhuatl (Lady of the Dead). The celebrations included collecting skulls from battles as trophies, and bringing offerings and sacrifices to this goddess.
‘Today in Mexico, a unique syncretism of this ritual and All Saints’ Day has created what we now know as the Day of the Dead.’
What does it look like?
PG: ‘Students in schools build altars to the Lady of the Dead and write poems to speak of her sudden intervention. At night, children run around with painted faces, asking for money with little plastic skulls, their trophies – similar to trick or treating, commonplace at Halloween in other countries. Most of the money collected will go toward candy or the delicious ‘bread of the dead’. Bakeries open until late into the night, offering this seasonal treat, that must be enjoyed with family and hot Mexican cocoa.
‘The main tradition is for families to build an altar, placing a picture of their deceased loved ones at the centre. They surround it with Mexican marigolds that, with their distinct colour and aroma, flood their homes and cemeteries with an unusual scent. Incense, chocolate, candy skulls, and sweets are placed at the bottom of the altar. During the night, families gather, believing their loved ones will visit them from the afterlife. In preparation for their arrival, family members prepare the favourite foods and music of their deceased, to satisfy their hunger after the long journey to the land of the living. Cemeteries stay open all night long, while people eat and drink, accompanied by mariachi bands.’
What’s the issue here?
Similar to the effect of Halloween in many countries, Day of the Dead provokes many different reactions among religious and non-religious groups.
Joel and Mayra, Latin Link members in Mexico: ‘Sometimes you can see that Mexicans do not know the origin of this celebration; they will claim it is just a cultural tradition – a game, something light.
‘The first challenge here is that the theology behind the Day of the Dead celebrations clashes directly with a Christian view of death, life and resurrection. These traditions declare that the deceased have to succeed in many challenges after death in order to gain eternal rest, and that the families left behind have a responsibility to accompany them on their journey.
‘The pressure to join in is extremely high and people can find themselves being ignored, judged, laughed at and, in some cases, even fired for not participating.’
How should we respond?
Joel and Mayra: ‘The church has the challenge to learn about the origin of the celebration, to understand the culture and historical baggage involved, and then to act in ways that can express respect, but not worship. It’s important to bring clarity not confusion to people about what the church believes, and what has been written in the Bible about death, the dead, and resurrection. There is a challenge to be gracious in our actions, but also firm in our beliefs.
‘The Day of the Dead does actually provide opportunities for sharing the good news, especially if we focus on presenting the truth of the gospel: our God is a God of life. He gives life, and through grace, we do not have to conquer all the challenges in the afterlife; he did all for us. It’s important to present the positive and real alternative we Christians have in Christ.
‘The key thing is to establish a connection with people during this time and offer guidance, not criticism.’
Pastor Gabriel: ‘Not everyone is eager to celebrate death. Mexico continues to suffer great loss from thousands of femicides and murders related to drug crime in 2019. Death is all around us here. But there’s a big group of people who find this tradition very bleak and dark, preferring to change the theme and celebrate life.
‘Some groups will gather to invite people to speak life, and to not give in to old dark traditions; to realise how much we need to change our traditions to change our nation. Christian Churches tend to call for a special Life service, with prayer for healing and family unity.
‘If you visit Mexico during this season, do please enjoy the bread of the dead, but also celebrate life with us, as mourning must be turned into dancing; join in as our hearts sing for joy.’