Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Vs. Day of Dead

Spooky holiday deathmatch!
And the uncontested winner still is the Mexican Day of the Dead! Both holidays, I assume, arise from the same Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve, or Día de Todos los Santos, in Spanish. I'm a Jew, so don't think for a second that I am about to give you the historical context for this asseveration. I'm talking out of my ass. But I can still tell you why Day of Dead kicks Halloween's ass. If this starts the next Mexican-American war, so be it.

Basically, there is a very simple reason: Day of the Dead, which I assume, also out of my ass, has been going on in this continent longer than Halloween, has not yet reached a stage of commercial apotheosis in which its original meaning is totally lost under the maniacal ringing of the cash register. Yes, you can buy pan de muerto, Day of the Day bread, or sugar or chocolate skulls with your name or that of your loved ones inscribed on them, but most of the money spent on Day of the Dead celebrations goes towards buying bunches of cempazúchitl, the orange flower that decorates the altars to your beloved dead, and the stuff that goes in said altars, which is the stuff the dead used to love when they were alive (mostly involving tequila, mezcal, cigarettes, Japanese Mexican peanuts and other sundry pleasures and vices). No need to be gouged on a green itchy wig and a cheap Tinkerbell costume at Ricky's.

Moreover, the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition is a fascinating combo of the indigenous cult of the dead of the Precolumbian cultures with the Christian tradition that was shoved down their throats later on. Whereas Halloween has long ago lost its connection to its original intent, whatever that was, Day of the Dead insists on getting emotionally and spiritually close to the actual dead, not just look like them.  Besides, in Mexico, people are natural artists. They make things with flowers and paper and cardboard, not just plastic made in Taiwan.

Unfortunately, Halloween has made enormous inroads all over Mexico. I spent Day of the Dead in Oaxaca several years ago and kids were dressed as mummies or ghouls and trick or treating for cash, as opposed to candy, which comes in handy when you actually have issues getting enough food to eat. But the beautiful, deeply personal, deeply heartfelt tradition of Day of the Dead prevails.

That's my hero, Benito Juarez in the left bottom corner.
Yes, there were some obnoxious rich Mexican juniors after midnight in the cemetery who hired a band of Mariachis and were disturbing everyone with their drunken hollering (and, of course, if the humble people honoring their dead were as annoyed as I was, they did not show it). But to walk into a cemetery late at night and see the graves lit by candles surrounded by these gorgeous flowers, and see the families sitting at the graves, bringing their dead their atole (sweet corn porridge), and communing with them, that certainly beats the hordes of drunken idiots tottering about the Village in New York City. I'm no party pooper. I used to hate Halloween when I was a child, but I like it in New York because the grown ups get dressed up. I think it's lots of fun. But it has become pointless. And isn't it richer when celebrations actually have a point?

Halloween masks in Oaxaca
"I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round..."
Grave at the cemetery. 
The entrance to Oaxaca's cemetery at night
American plastic ghosts decorate a grave with Mexican panache

"You are dust and to dust you shall return"

A humble cemetery during the day.


  1. Cathy Shikler van Ingen10:50 AM

    Does it have to be a contest? Can we enjoy both?

  2. Cathy Shikler van Ingen10:50 AM

    .....but it's a great article, as usual!!!!

  3. Tova in Toronto12:17 PM

    I'm just impressed with your use of the word "asseveration". Great pics also.

  4. Love it. I can't get pan de muerto where I live, but after giving one of my coworkers a recipe for it (yes, I'm too lazy to bake it myself), I am enjoying some yummy pan de muerto this morning :)