The last Sunday of October is Visit a Cemetery Day. It marks the beginning of a week of Holy Days that are variously called All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (on the Christian calendar); and with roots in indigenous traditions, Hallowe’en (Europe); and Día de los Muertos (Latin America).
For many European indigenous cultures, this time of year was an observance of the end of the harvest, the entering of a time of rest. Although not the December solstice, it is Eve of Winter. In the Northern Hemisphere, the days are shorter and colder. The first frost has snapped life from the once-green landscape, now blanketed by golden and russet leaves lying at the roots of barren trees. The first snowflakes are now scurrying across the grey sky. And this is when the veils between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead disappear and the denizens of the two realms may reunite.
This is the season when the Celtic nations commemorated Samhain, still called such by Gaels, Welsh and Neopagans. In Cornwall, it is called Allentide; on the Isle of Man, Hop-tu-Naa. Later, with the forced introduction of a new religion, this celebration’s name and vision would be changed.
With the introduction of Christianity, many indigenous European holy days were coopted and acquired a thin Catholic façade over the original celebration. The Roman Church’s honoring of saints was originally held in May, replacing the Roman Feast of the Lemures. But with the extension of its power further north into pagan lands in the 9th century, the date was changed to 31 October – 2 November. Samhain became Hallowe’en, meaning All Hallows Eve – the eve (night) before All Saints Day (1 November), followed by All Souls Day (2 November).
All Saint’s Day is an official holiday in not only the Holy See (Vatican City) and a host of European countries, but also Latin American countries like Chile, Guatemala, Peru and Venezuela. All Souls’ Day is a national holiday in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Some of the symbols associated with modern Hallowe’en have their roots in ancient indigenous European customs; many others do not. 31 October also has more modern designations that have little to do with its original spirit: Beggars’ Night, Carve a Pumpkin Day, Increase Your Psychic Powers Day, National Caramel Apple Day and Books for Treats Day. Hallowe’en is principally observed in Canada, the US, United Kingdom and Ireland.
When the Spaniards invaded the lands west of the great sea (Atlantic Oceans), they met indigenous peoples honoring the dead at the end of October, after the maize harvest. In modern times, this feast is called Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Día de los Difuntos.
Day of the Dead commemorations begin 31 October and extend through 2 November (with this last night being the most important). During these days, families go to the cemeteries to clean and repaint their families’ tombs. Carefully, the names and dates are re-lettered. The graves are decorated with flowers and wreaths. Then, as night falls, food and drink are spread out, and the living and spirits of the dead feast together. Music may accompany the festivities illuminated by candlelight.
The most famous place to witness these traditions is Pátzcuaro, Mexico. Mexico’s celebrations are recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. In other countries with yet large indigenous populations – Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – families also greet the return of their dead in this manner.
In Mexico and Mexican communities in the Southwest and other parts of the United States of North America, families prepare ofrendas. These altars set up in homes are dedicated to family and friends who have parted over to the World of the Dead. The difuntos’ photos, favorite toys, foods and other items are placed and kept for them to enjoy when they come to visit during these celebrations of the Día de los Muertos. Cempasúchil (Tagetes erecta Linnaeus, giant marigold) and sugar skulls also decorate the altars.
Our Journey to Honor the Dead
Today, we shall make a photographic-literary journey through Latin America. Through photos, we meander the cemeteries. Through poetry and prose, we witness the traditions of these nations commemorating their dearly departed, celebrating the Day of the Dead – and pay tribute to those who have died.
This article is of three parts:
- Part One: Discusses the historical foundations for these Holy Days of late October and early November.
- Part Two: Poetic journeys for the days leading up to Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead, and another poem about Samhain, all honoring the dead.
- Part Three: Poetic and prosaic journeys into the Day of the Dead, as celebrated in Mexico, the Galapagos Islands and Bolivia.
You may read all the offerings at once – or choose to read it day by day, from today through 3 November.
Would you like to read more of my adventures for this week of Holy Days?
Then please hop on these “rides”: