Themes of death, spirits, and visits from the Otherworld are celebrated throughout October, culminating on October 31st, Halloween. Hallowe’en is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallow is another word for Saint), which is the first night of the three Christian Holy Days: All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. This week we will continue getting into the spirit of the season and explore various traditions to honor those who have gone before us.
All the major religions, like Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have special prayers for the dead. Adherents pray the dead will be met with forgiveness, mercy, and peace in the afterlife. Historically, the Christian festival All Saints’ Day was to pray to the saints, as they don’t need you to pray for them, and All Souls’ Day was the pray for the souls of the “faithful departed”.
Originally, the saints and martyrs each had their own observance, but the Christian persecution committed by the Roman Empire led to more martyrs than days on the calendar. So the festival of All Saints’ Day was created. For early Christians, All Saints’ Day was one of the most holy days of the year. They would spend the night before, All Hallows’ Eve, in vigil, fasting, and visiting graveyards with flowers and candles.
All Souls’ Day is for all faithfully departed, especially friends and family. Established by the Christian monk Father Odilo of Cluny sometime between 998 and 1030 AD, All Souls’ Day was observed with alms for the poor and prayers for the dead. The monastery at Cluny was the wealthiest in the Western world, so much so that the monks had solid gold chalices, silk vestments, and hired laborers to do their work, so they could spend all their time in prayer. On All Souls’ Day, churches might be decorated with candles and flowers. The names of the recently departed are read aloud, a candle is lit for each name, and bells are tolled.
In Mexico, they celebrate Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. Families build altars that they adorn with decorative and often edible skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and drinks of their departed relatives. During this public holiday, families also visit graves and leave gifts: toys for children and bottles of tequila or mezcal for adults. In some towns, people have picnics in the graveyard and spend all night at the grave of their loved one. The three-day fiesta is a huge affair with colorful costumes, dancing, parades, sugar skulls, and the telling of humorous stories about the departed.
Across Mexico, on November 1st, people celebrate the folk saint of Santa Muerte, Our Lady of Holy Death. She is associated with people who work dangerous jobs at night, like taxi drivers, police, and sex workers, and they invoke her protection against violence. Santa Muerte (Holy Death), also called The Bony Lady (La Huesuda), The Skinny Lady (La Flaquita), The Pretty Girl (La Niña Bonita), The White Girl (La Niña Blanca) and Lady of Shadows (Señora de las Sombras) was once only venerated in private, as the Catholic Church associated her with the occult. Now she is a patron saint for the LGBT community, marginalized people, and young people– especially young women. In exchange for favors and wishes granted, Santa Muerte is offered cigarettes, stuffed animals, flowers, incense, alcohol, coins, candy, and candles.