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alloween has just passed. Many had looked forward with eager anticipation to all the costumes and goodies, the parades and movies. Others looked the other way, thinking about the occasion with dread. Some didn’t think of it at all.

el dia del muertos

The Dead Come Each Year to Visit—Rosemary Jenkins

Each year my husband and I attend a friend’s annual Dress-Up Halloween Party, each year witnessing more neighborhoods “dressing up” as well. Their home, in particular, is a virtual Dia de Muerte exhibition of scary, roaring, jumping-out-of-walls decor--with guests vying with each other for the best and most original, eye-popping costumes.

Sometimes, as with Christmas, we forget what Halloween is really all about. It has been observed for centuries in different places in the world, but we, in the Southwest, are particularly blessed by being allowed to share the meaningful rituals and spiritual traditions coming out of neighboring Mexico.

The reality--it’s not just about holiday foods and decorations. No, it is about far more.

Historically speaking, Halloween has come to us through the Celtic (kel-tic) traditions from centuries ago. It was a Harvest Festival during which crops were stored for when food was scarce, but it was also a time when it was believed that “the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would come back to life.”

So what is El Dia de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) all about? In the Catholic Church, every day throughout the year is meaningful—it is a celebration of at least one saint and may also be a day to be celebrated for other holy reasons. We, in America, have incorporated this holiday into our yearly traditions. October 31 is called All Hallow’s Eve (hence Halloween). It is the night before November 1 (which is the day that commemorates the journey of the dead from their spiritual world as they visit us and their earthly memories).

This holiday offers the mourners of the dead the opportunity to remember them and to pray for them in order to purify the souls of those who have passed (made the transition) into the next world.

This holiday offers the mourners of the dead the opportunity to remember them and to pray for them in order to purify the souls of those who have passed (made the transition) into the next world. In this way, the living can help those souls find their way back to the spiritual world which they had been inhabiting throughout the year. It is believed that there is an eternal spiritual connection between those who have passed and those who remain behind, waiting for their turn to make the transition. Regardless of your beliefs or disbeliefs, I think it is at least comforting to imagine that this connection is possible and real.

Because the journey is long and arduous, often favorite foods and drink are brought out to offer respite for the weary travelers. Hygienic products are also available for them to cleanse themselves after the difficult trip. For children, there are often favorite toys and pictures to remind them of what their lives had been like and what they had left behind. Those left behind wish, through their actions, to bestow upon those souls the understanding of just how many here on earth still and always will love them and keep them in their hearts.

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According to Catholic and many other faiths, purity and removal of all sin are necessary before entrance to heaven can be achieved. For many believers, there is Purgatory—that in-between place between Hell and Heaven—during which one’s soul can attain that required perfection (often through the prayers and with the help of those in mourning).

Many Catholics (particularly those from Mexico) believe that November 2 is especially set aside for the child travelers. These same believers also believe that November 1, All Saints Day, is for those who have already reached heavenly status. For Mexican Catholics, All Saints Day commemorates the passage of the adults who have made the transition. According to the Catholic Church, the first of November is kept in memory of all those saints (known and unknown) but also those who have achieved the beatific vision in Heaven.

I learned, by the way, that such celebrations go back thousands of years—even to the times of the ancient Hebrews (today’s Jewish people). Certainly, Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year, is a Day of Atonement for our sins and a Day of Remembrance of those who have left us—never to be forgotten but always to be loved. Jewish mourners and others pray to God to “renew and strengthen the connection between us and our loved ones, bringing merit to the departed souls, elevating them in their celestial homes.”

During this period this year, I had the opportunity to visit a fabulous exhibit at Monroe High School on November 2, 2015—AllSouls Day. The guests had to wait in long lines (which went quickly) for the privilege of visiting and being part of this inspired undertaking and were rewarded afterward by a variety of traditional sweets.

At the school, there were many examples of the symbols commonly used during this holiday. The list below names but some of them:

  • various favorite foods make the spirit feel welcome and at home
  • sweet breads shaped in a circular fashion to remind us of the circle of life
  • a glass of water to be consumed by the weary soul-traveler
  • salt signifies the continuation of life and purifies the spirits
  • purple represents pain and suffering (which is a part of life and the doorway to death)
  • cut paper is a symbol of joy (also an important part of one’s life story)
  • altars to the beloved are created in remembrance of them

A book that I taught while I was still teaching, Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, is a wonderful historical fiction “diary,” seen through the eyes of Catherine who, through her introspection, enlightens the reader about so many historical themes, including interesting vignettes on the very subject of All Saints and All Souls Days. I highly recommend the book, regardless of your age!

And finally, maybe Halloween should also be a day (beyond the normal celebrations) when we realize how closely connected all of us are in this world and the next.

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Rosemary Jenkins