By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
When we first were in Mexico for Day of the Dead (an autumn more than 25 years ago), we had the feeling of deja vu or, more appropriately, ya hemos visto. No, not because of the superficial similarity with Halloween. As we were escorted around a cemetery by a proud local resident who explained Day of the Dead customs and told stories about the members of his family who were interred there, we were struck by the similarities with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Both Sukkot and Day of the Dead are autumn festivals. Both have been celebrated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The celebration of Sukkot is described in the Torah, aka the Old Testament (OT), partial copies of which have been scientifically dated from around 500 BCE. Although Day of the Dead may not be quite as old, there’s reportedly archeological evidence that the celebration occurred centuries before the Spanish began colonizing the Americas in 1493. Both holidays should actually be called holy days since there is a deeply spiritual significance for both practices – and these holy days (two days for Day of the Dead and eight for Sukkot) are synonymous with the practices in many ancient tribal cultures of providing thanks to divine beings for that autumn’s agricultural harvest.
Both holy days involve building a relatively small temporary structure. The Day of the Dead altar, or ofrenda, has three distinct levels. The sukkah, or booth of Sukkot, is defined by three walls. The top level of the ofrenda is an open arch and the top of the sukkah must be open to the sky. The building and decorating of both structures is commonly communal and cooperative. Flowers, especially marigolds in Mexico, are generally brought from individual and community gardens to beautify the ofrenda and sukkah.
Both structures are viewed as portals through which ancestors can visit the living, or at least the living can remember and honor the memory of deceased relatives. The ofrenda, as the name implies, provides a table for holding food and drink preferred by deceased relatives along with photos of the dearly departed. The sukkah walls are traditionally decorated with pictures of ancient ancestors – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah and Rachel – plus, in more modern times, photographs of more recent forebears. A table is set up in the sukkah where foods made from favorite recipes from previous generations are served.
Prayers and spiritual ceremonies are an important element of both Sukkot and Day of the Dead. Subsequent to the conversion to Catholicism of the indigenous people of Mexico by the Spanish conquerors, it is not surprising that Day of the Dead prayers ask for blessings on the souls of the departed in the name of Jesus Christ. But more ancient elemental spiritual Day of the Dead ceremonies focus on fire, water, earth and wind. Sukkot prayers and ceremonies also include these elements: fire in the form of candle lighting, water in prayers for rain, earth in the form of the branches of three plants (palm, myrtle, and willow) that are bound together to form a lulav and are held together with an etrog (citron), and wind created by shaking the lulav in all four directions plus up toward the heavens and down towards the earth.
At first glance, both observances appear to be grave in tenor. Day of the Dead ceremonies take place in cemeteries, both Holy Days take place at the time of year when flora and fauna are entering their dormant stage, days are growing shorter and darker, and the focus is on dead ancestors. But both Day of the Dead and Sukkot observances are joyous. In fact, Jews and everyone in their communities are literally commanded in the Torah (OT) to be happy. And, as part of the joy, both Holy Days involve storytelling, music and dancing.
Another shared practice is feasting with family and friends. Foods are distinctly ethnic but fundamentally similar. Bread is an essential component; aside from the addition of anise, Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) resembles the challah served on Sukkot – they have virtually the same ingredients and much the same taste. At both holy feasts, it’s common to serve seasonal fruits and vegetables seasoned with sweeteners, as well as stuffed ancestral foods: kreplach (little dumplings stuffed with seasoned chopped meat) for Sukkot and tamales for Day of the Dead. Children of both cultures enjoy candied apples – albeit decorated as skulls for Day of the Dead.
Perhaps these similarities are based on the core principle of both observances – the realization that life on Earth is temporary, that one day we will all join our ancestors. And the hope in both cultures is that just as we remember those who came before us, we in turn will be remembered for good by those who come after us.