Writing about traditions that are deeply ingrained in a culture is difficult in part because none of the participants in the tradition really knows or remembers where it originally really came from or why they do what they do to celebrate it. The meaning of the holiday, the holiness, in a sense, becomes lost underneath all the ritual and requirements of the festivities.
But still, there’s comfort in tradition even if the underlying meaning has been lost beneath generations of rules and prescribed formulas for celebration. Some holidays offer leniency to celebrants. For example, the Fourth of July and Halloween are holidays that are more flexible and less ritualized. There are still cultural and community expectations regarding these holidays, but they’re less restricted than the rituals surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas. On Independence Day and Halloween, people are allowed to celebrate in a manner that suits them (or not at all) without being entirely excluded from the community. However, those who choose not to celebrate Christmas (unless they live in neighborhoods or communities with non-Christian religious affiliations) or Thanksgiving will find it difficult to go on with their daily lives when these holidays are in full swing.
Every aspect of our culture is altered by the prescribed traditions that go along with the season. Most people choose to celebrate Christmas by putting up a Christmas tree and cooking a turkey, but few know why they do these things. If questioned by an anthropologists, people would say, “it’s tradition,” but have little to no explanation regarding the specifics of the tradition, when or where it originated or why it still has meaning to them. The ritual itself becomes meaningful. Memories are built around putting ornaments on a tree or mashing potatoes. Though our ancestors may have put up a Christmas tree to symbolize the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice (the star at the top of the tree) before Christianity was thoroughly doctrinated into our culture, few people today realize that this was the meaning behind this powerful symbol.
To me, as an American, Day of the Dead in Mexico echoes both the sentiments of Halloween as well as the deeply ingrained traditions of Christmas. But there are so many holidays and parties in Mexico. In the United States, we have very few holidays that are celebrated en masse, where families gather in the same space to celebrate. Day of the Dead seems less innocuous than Christmas has become with its frenzied commercialism and extravagance, but it seems more formal than Halloween. Some people compare the feel of Day of the Dead traditions with Thanksgiving in the United States. It’s a family affair that’s highly ritualized (locally, at least), but celebrated differently in different communities throughout the country. Because Day of the Dead has become a spectacle for tourists, it can be a challenge to find authentic celebrations unless you don’t look too hard and just watch the goings on of regular communities in Mexico.
Dia de los Inocentes is just one part of the Dia de los Muertos tradition. This is the day when children (los angelitos) return from the dead to visit the living. The Dia de Muertos festivities last for three days from October 31st through November 2nd. The celebration is technically a Christian one, having synced up with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, but it is still distinctly pagan and Latin American. The Latin American rendition of Christianity has been colored with pagan traditions just as much as American Christianity has. Instead of Christmas trees, Mexicans and other Latin Americans scatter marigolds, and exchange sugar skulls, and Catarina dolls. The pagan rituals that carried over in these Latin American countries were those that resonated most readily with the spiritual strivings of the worshippers. Death became worthy of a three-day celebration as a means to level the playing field. The rich and the poor became equals in the Afterworld. In contrast, the Christmas tree (and the desire for more daylight and warmer temperatures) was a symbol that held on in our American culture along with gift-giving (which reflects our culture’s tenacious and eternal desire for more things).
Dia de Muertos is a celebration that has only recently come out of the closet. Some say the official revival occurred nearby in Hidalgo in 1965, but Mexicans have been celebrating Day of the Dead behind closed doors for many years. Today, Americans are fascinated by the festivities and though the holiday does share some similarities with Halloween, the traditions are very different.