All Souls Day: Mexican vs. Irish Catholicism

Happy All Soul’s Day. Feliz Dia de los Muertos. I hope you enjoyed today’s feast day for “everyone else,” those who left this life in the company of God, saints in all but name.

Over the last two millenia the Catholic church, in its zeal for converts, adopted an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to local tradition. Hence in Ireland the Celtic festival of Samhain wound its way into the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 2). In southern Mexico, the Spaniards allowed elements of the Aztec festival honoring Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the dead, into their celebration of the feast days.  How else were you going to get those recalcitrant heathens to come to church?

My money’s on the Mexicans. I’ll tell you why in a minute. Here’s our church’s altar of the dead:


Note the pictures of the deceased, the decorations, the candles, and the food. The skulls are made of sugar, and are handmade to represent a particular soul. This altar is just a table, Protestant friends. A special table we set for our guests.

The Irish celebration of all Hallow’s eve is all about making sure the dead don’t come back. The ghosts may wander freely, but you really don’t want them in your house. In fact, you’d just as soon they not recognize you, so you don a costume for the day. If you offer food, it’s on your front porch so they’ll take it and leave. It’s as if the populace feels collectively guilty for treating their relatives badly in life, and are taking extreme measures so as not to be haunted by their vengeful spirits.

The Mexicans, on the other hand, believe the dead would prefer to be celebrated. Their spirits are enticed in with their favorite food and a special table decorated with flowers and candles. Sometimes, in the tradition of children who’d rather not have their parents see their messy house, the celebration happens at the grave. A friend of mine posted to Facebook from her parents’ grave; she offered them pretzel twists, chicharrones, and popcorn. And soda.  This is a feast day for getting together to tell stories of the deceased: their funny haircuts, their adventures, their mannerisms, and their wisdom. It is a joyous and often silly time, a chance to tell your loved ones exactly how much you miss them.

My 8 year-old friend Lucia stood next to me as I took pictures of our altar. “The spirits don’t really take a bite out of those, do they?” she asked me with some concern. “I mean, they just suck the nutrition out of them, they don’t really eat them.”

“No,” I responded. “I don’t think they even do that. I think they’re just happy you thought of them.”


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