Pagans and Christians, Halloween and Day of the Dead

Calabiuza Festival, Tonacatepeque, The Savior.
Photo: Oscar rivera.

By Alberto Barrera

"The cult of life,
If it really is deep and total,
It is also a cult of death ".

Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950).

Pittsburg, California - Halloween and Dia de Muertos are long-standing celebrations across America that mix old traditions of appreciation for the harvests and reverence for the dead with a load of modern witch festival, skulls and cemeteries with lights and vivid colors.

In October, it is common to see houses adorned with figures alluding to Halloween in this city in the San Francisco Bay area., a religious holiday that became pagan like Halloween in which monsters are depicted, human skeletons representing death, zombies, graves and others that create a spooky atmosphere, although it is a very celebrated celebration.

Garden with elements of Halloween in Pittsburg, California.
Photo: Alberto Barrera.

While the Day of the Dead or of the Dead in Latin American countries, mainly in Mexico and the Mesoamerican area, pay tribute to deceased family and friends for what in cemeteries is a celebration with natural and artificial flowers, colored paper or plastic pennants and even mariachis and other musical groups sing melodies in memory of the relatives who left.

Calabiuza Festival, Tonacatepeque, The Savior,
Photo: Luis Galdámez

Both days have a religious origin, although they are different celebrations today. In the United States it is part of its modern culture and other countries Halloween is celebrated and comes from the English phrase “All Hallows’ Eve” which would be translated as all saints' eve. Pope Gregory IV instituted it in the 9th century as "Day of the Faithful Dead", according to a BBC journalistic investigation.

But the Catholic saints included it until the 16th century when Europeans, initially the Spanish conquerors and colonizers accompanied by Catholic missionaries, They arrived in America and found native peoples who honored their dead and by imposing Christianity on them, they mixed the celebration with their rituals., according to the research "The Day of the Dead" from the series Histories and Customs of the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Empires: Azteca in the Valley of Mexico, Maya in the southern region of Mexico and Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and the Inca in Peru had traditions that they later mixed with those brought by the Catholic missionaries.

"The Day of the Dead festival is one of the multiple effects of the meeting of two worlds", Elsa Malvido wrote in her research "The Indigenous Festival Dedicated to the Dead in Mexico" in 2006, after three years before UNESCO declared it a Masterpiece of the Oral Heritage of Humanity.

In Europe, historians linked Halloween with an ancient pagan festival of the Celtic peoples called "Samhain" in which they celebrated the end of summer and the arrival of autumn., which lasted three days and began the 31 October what "according to some scholars was a tribute to the king of the dead", added BBC in their research.

Samhain, which according to National Geographic etymologically is "the end of summer",  marks the end of the Celtic year and is a night when the deceased return to their former homes and other vengeful spirits and evil fairies roam the land. The Celts inhabited regions of Ireland, England, Scotland and France.

National Geographic assures that the custom of that time “was to leave food and sweets outside their houses as an offering.. On the other hand, it was common to light candles to help the souls of the dead to find their way to light and rest ". He adds that "the night of 31 October rituals were also held. These had a purifying character. "

Hence, the custom of Halloween in the United States is mainly that children and adults with witch costumes, vampires and even characters from superhero comics, they visit houses in their communities asking for sweets and chocolates. The atmosphere is one of a party, although some houses are gloomy and only huge orange pumpkins stand out, some of which have holes that simulate eyes., nose and mouth where you see a light placed inside.

At a Pittsburg high school one of the boys arrived in costume and attracted attention because his white outfit with a cornet-style tunic and hood, similar to those used by members of the white supremacist group Kukuxklan with a long history of violence, mainly against African Americans. It was later explained that he did it for a bet with one of his friends, but it attracted the attention of the press.

Due to the pandemic for the second year the popular party will be diminished by fears of contagion, But nothing prevents that in the courtyards and exterior portals they have images and figures of terror that for a long time have been a tradition and that the audiovisual media, mainly horror movies, has helped establish their preference among the population.

Between 1845 Y 1849 during the 'great famine in Ireland' which was part of the UK, More than a million people emigrated to the United States and their stories and traditions accompanied them, so it is not surprising that Halloween is mentioned after that exodus, dijo BBC.

In the cities of the United States the houses, businesses and other buildings are adorned with objects alluding to creatures such as vampires, witches, Wolfman, Undead and iconic figures from the beloved horror movies. The images of tombs are not lacking either, cemeteries, spiders, cats and pumpkins.

While in southern Mexico and much of Central America traditions of honoring the dead are maintained, combining some customs and legends of the indigenous ancestors who did not see death as an end but as part of a cycle of life and the Christian, although there were changes with the passage of time.

Guatemala, which has a large indigenous population, celebrates the 1 November as Saints Day in Santiago Sacatepéquez, center of the country, with huge kites or kites because they consider them a "symbolic connection with the dead and guide the spirits towards their relatives", says the Vanderbilt study, in addition to offering food and drink to the deceased.

While in San José Petén, to the Guatemalan north, the tradition is the procession of three sacred skulls or "The Holy Skulls" that are believed to be of three Mayan kings or priests and the assistants venerate them to give them health, good crops or bless your marriages, according to the same study.

This tradition is similar to "Calabiuza Day" which is celebrated on 1 November in Tonacatepeque, in the northeast periphery of San Salvador, and which many consider "a cult of death". It is an old festival for the end of the harvest and for which many houses prepare the 1 November "squash in honey" which is a crop of the region similar to the pumpkin of the north and that they cook in large clay pots with "sweet panela" or "piloncillo" to give to visitors who are mostly children.

“Angels we are and from heaven we come, asking for squash for our way, mino, mino”, It is the phrase used by visitors in the houses who arrive with a candle and a container known as "guacal" which is half of a round fruit of the "morro tree" and from which the pulp is removed to use it for drinks such as atoles or sodas.

The custom is turned into a party with a parade of characters from local legends such as La Siguanaba, The Cipitío, the screaming wagon or the Headless Father, young people and children with skulls or witch costumes are accompanied by music and eat typical food and sweet squash. The celebration precedes the ceremony in public and private cemeteries throughout the country.

The Screaming Wagon, Calabiuza Festival in Tonacatepeque, The Savior.
Photo: Roberto escobar.

These and other traditions are similar and have pagan and Christian ties., European and American, in days of saints and of the dead or of witches and vampires that millions celebrate between the 31 October, and the 1 Y 2 November but that the dangerous COVID-19 pandemic has marginalized since last year, without preventing some from organizing their parties or remembering their deceased.