Tag Archives: death

Allhallowtide: The Sacred, the Sublime, and the Silly

By Brooke Gazer

When Hernán Cortés sailed for Mexico, he was seeking fame and fortune, but the priests who followed had a more challenging purpose. They wanted to save souls and gain converts for the Catholic church. Many Aztec rituals, like those surrounding the Death Goddess Mictecacihuatl, appalled them, but these practices were so deeply ingrained that some could be traced back to the Toltec Period (800-1000 CE). In Mexico, as in much of the New World, conversion would require compromises and one technique was merging existing native rituals with Catholic ones. With this in mind, they moved the festival of Mictecacihuatl from July to November, and incorporated Christian concepts.

The notion of rearranging festival dates and focus was not a novel one. In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV created a day to commemorate holy martyrs. Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory IV moved and expanded it to include all saints. This three day celebration became known in Europe as Allhallowtide – October 31, November 1 and 2.

For traditional Catholics, November 1 is All Saints’ Day; it may also be referred to as Day of the Innocents or Little Angels. Catholics are encouraged to pray for martyrs and saints as well as deceased children, who are assumed to be innocent. November 2 is All Souls’ Day, when Catholics pray for the souls of everyone else, including those who may have gone to Purgatory and are awaiting entry to heaven.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated on the same dates, but in Mexico it bears little resemblance to what Pope Gregory IV originally had in mind. Deceased children are remembered on November 1 and adults on November 2. However, people are not praying for their souls to enter heaven; they are awaiting a reunion. Many traditional Mexicans believe that death is part of a continuing cycle, and that on this hallowed night, the spirits of their ancestors are able to walk among them.

Since the dead return at night, people begin sitting vigil the nights of October 31 and November 1. After dark, Mexican families gather at home in front of ofrendas (altars for the departed), and at the gravesite. They offer favorite foods and beverages while sharing stories about the deceased. It’s a joyful time, about celebrating the life of the person, not mourning their loss. One might compare this to an Irish wake, except that this is an annual event, and the spirits of the deceased are believed to consume the offerings left for them. Believers will tell you that the flavors are altered after the dead have inhaled their essences.

In addition to believing that a loved one may return to enjoy earthly pleasures, Mexicans have continued other indigenous practices. Marigolds, called cempasúchil from the Nahuatl (Aztec), were believed to awaken the dead. Graves and the altars displaying candy, alcohol, favorite foods, and small mementos, are heavily adorned with these distinct orange flowers. On a practical note, it bears mentioning that the pungent fragrance of marigolds repels ants, so that chocolate and other treats are not overrun by these tiny pests. Those ancient priests knew more than we give them credit for.

Candles also play a major role and cemeteries are brightly lit with hundreds of velas as families gather to welcome their loved ones back to earth. Candles are part of Catholic rituals that have merged into this festival and it is believed that the light from the flames helps to guide the spirit home.

If you have an opportunity to visit a cemetery in Mexico during this time, it is an awe-inspiring experience. People are proud of the artistry employed in decorating their loved one’s graves and will welcome you as long as you are respectful. Oaxaca is one of the most traditional states in Mexico, so it stands to reason that this is an excellent place to experience this spectacular celebration of life. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, this might not be the year to visit.

While not all Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos, most do – if only to respect their ancestors. It is a lovely ritual, like agnostics decorating a tree and exchanging gifts in December. Adorning a grave or an altar is way to remember loved ones and allowing ourselves to do this is a healthy tradition that we might all benefit from.

This holiday should not be confused with the festival that we call Halloween. Since they share the same origins, the date overlaps, but this is where the similarity ends. During the medieval period in Ireland and Britain, Christians and pagans gathered around bonfires on Allhallowtide to ask for God’s protection from the evil in the world. It became tradition to dress in costumes of saints and demons and act out battles of good vs. evil. Somehow when this antiquated tradition crossed the Atlantic, it was adapted into a frivolous candy fest for children.

Halloween pales in comparison to Mexico’s spectacle, seeming rather crass to those who never grew up with it. For a child, however, the allure of dressing like a kitten or maybe as Superman and filling a sack with free Chiclets, Reese’s Pieces and mini Hershey bars is irresistible. Even as far south as Huatulco, this American/Canadian tradition is creeping into the culture. Each year, I notice more kids roaming our streets and begging for treats. An interesting twist, however, is that in Mexico time has a different perspective, so that local kids have cleverly extended October 31 into a multi-night candy grab.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa,
an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco.
http://www.bbaguaazul.com.

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“Live your life, do your work,  then take your hat.”
Henry David Thoreau

What does our collective reaction to COVID-19 say about our values? I am home, of course, with lots of time to ponder this question. I have friends who are reposting conspiracy theory videos and interviews with doctors on how best to proceed. There is a ton of information – much of it scientific and hypotheses abound on where we are going with this.

What are we protecting when we stay home? Is it our intense value for human life? I don’t think so. As I write this there have been 212,000 deaths (www.worldometers.info) related to COVID-19 in total. In contrast, this year there have been 270,923 deaths caused by water-related diseases and there are 802 million people with no access to a safe drinking water source. In this one day – today – 14,789 people will die of hunger.

As a species, we have very little value for human life as a whole. We regularly enter into wars that have mass casualties and the majority of us only ‘help’ others to the point that it will not affect our own quality of life. Staying home protects you from the contagion of the outside world. Nothing illustrates the inequality in our economic system than the ability for some of us to stay home in comfort, while others will be devastated economically by this reaction. Putting the world economy on hold is having a debilitating effect on food supply chains, social services that protect women and children, those who live in some sort of limbo and who may in fact not have even have had a home before all this madness. Time will tell how we look back on this world crisis and the long term effects of our actions.

There are currently 70.8 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide, and 37000 people are forced to flee their homes every day due to conflict or persecution (www.reliefweb.int). Due to conflict or persecution – it is helpful to note that this conflict and persecution comes from other humans. How have we responded to this? Visit any chat group and you will feel the hatred people have for other people – immigrants and refugees are turned away at borders, branded freeloaders and lazy. As a collective there is nothing humane about humanity.

As a species our most comfortable members have an overblown sense of importance. We prize our individual existence above all else. We just had a disgusting display of survival mode on a global scale as people rushed to stock up on toilet paper and dry goods. I understand. Death can be terrifying since we do not know what awaits us on the other side. Of course religions offer some solace but most of us view death as something to fight against rather than what it is, which is the inevitable for each of us. You will die. I will die. Is it noble to fight so hard?

Buddhism teaches its followers to accept the inevitability of death: “We fail to see and accept reality as it is- with life in death and death in life. In addition the habits of self-obsession, the attitude of self-importance and the insistence on a distinct self-identity separates us from the whole of which we are an inalienable part.” (Buddhist monk Geshe Dabul Namgyal, quoted in The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2020.)

One of the aspects I love so much about Mexican culture is its attitude towards death. I lived beside a small town cemetery for eight years and I learned how to celebrate life and mourn joyfully for those who have departed. Modern day culture has an unhealthy fear of death.

So why is this happening? Culturally we think we are above the connectivity of ourselves with nature. If you don’t believe me just watch some of the protests resisting climate change. Just look at your own life choices; how often do you fly? How much do you pollute? How much do you waste? Nature is smart. We love to post and share feel-good quotes about our connectivity with the universe, but how many of us really live it? We are intricately connected to the natural world around us and you must know in your heart that we are the parasites. The definition of a parasite is an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the hosts expense. Sound familiar?

More people died today from human related traumas- hunger, displacement, murder – than from COVID-19. And yet we are completely focused on our individual protection. The human population grew from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.774 billion in 2020. Moreover, each person now consumes in a way that couldn’t even have been imagined fifty years ago. Even with the small (compared to other causes) number of deaths related to COVID-19 we are still putting 100,000 new people on the planet every day!

Nature is always finding balance.

See you in July,

Jane