For Americans, and others from countries where this celebration is not a longstanding tradition, this folkloric holiday could simply seem like a “Mexican Halloween,” in the worst possible sense.
In recent years, the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead (November 2) has gained visibility in the USA and around the world, thanks in great part to the James Bond film Spectre and Pixar’s animated feature Coco. It’s a colorful part of Latin American Catholic culture, and one we’ve described at Aleteia both before its cinematic success and after.
For Americans, and perhaps people from other countries where this celebration is not a longstanding tradition, this folkloric holiday could simply seem like a “Mexican Halloween,” in the worst possible sense. It could appear as a pagan celebration that invites people to celebrate the darkness of death, or even worship it (associating it with the “Santa Muerte” or “Saint Death” cult), and to seek to communicate with the dead through pre-Colombian rites and rituals.
This is the danger of learning about other cultures from movies, on one hand, and on the other, of misunderstanding the process of inculturation which the Church has practiced since its founding.
A cult of death?
Let’s start with what the Day of the Dead is not. To quote a 2019 article from Vatican News: “It must be made clear that in Mexico this celebration is not a ‘satanic cult’ or something related to a ‘cult of death.’” Nor is it generally understood exactly as depicted by the film Coco, although it did incorporate many real elements of Mexican culture, to the delight of audiences in Mexico and abroad. Just as we would not look to Disney for an entirely accurate portrayal of the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson or those recorded by the Brothers Grimm, its subsidiary Pixar is not a reliable source for information on the way Catholics in Mexico celebrate the Day of the Dead.
Spectre, the James Bond movie, simply uses some of the aesthetics of the celebration as the dramatic setting for memorable chase scenes. Indeed, prior to the film there was no major Day of the Dead parade through the historical center of Mexico City, although it has since quickly become a “tradition” as a reliable source of tourism income.
A tradition rooted in the missionaries’ evangelization methods
What is it, then? First of all, returning to the Vatican News article, “it forms a part of a belief that has its roots in the Prehispanic world.” Among the cultures that existed in what is now Mexico before the coming of Europeans, the article goes on to explain, there was a general belief in an afterlife, including something analogous to Purgatory. In order for the dead to reach their destination in the afterlife, they needed certain essential objects, and once a year they visited the earth. During this occasion, the living could offer them food and objects to help them along.
Up to here, one could still object, “See? It’s a pagan celebration that Catholics should avoid.” However, when Catholic missionaries arrived in the Americas, they realized that in these beliefs and celebrations there were elements of truth that were common ground which could help the indigenous peoples understand the Catholic faith. These partial truths are what the Church calls “semina verbi” or the “seeds of the Word”—a term coined by St. Justin Martyr in the 2nd century (originally in Greek, “logoi spermatikoi”).
The missionaries engaged in what is called inculturation: they took the elements of truth they found and some of the cultural manifestations that accompanied them, and infused them with the Catholic faith, transforming the feast of the god of the underworld into a celebration of All Souls Day. In this way, the missionaries introduced Catholic teaching, and this helped transform the culture as a whole.
This technique of evangelization is nothing new. St. Paul himself, when speaking at the Areopagus in Athens, did not say, “Forget everything you know, because it’s all wrong.” Instead, he quoted a pagan poet and referred to a pagan altar “to the unknown god,” saying, “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-31)
Many folkloric traditions surrounding Catholic feast days have been adopted over the centuries from non-Christian traditions as part of inculturation. Even some aspects of Catholic iconography, terminology, and philosophy (used to elucidate theology) have non-Christian origins, such as Greco-Roman mystery cults and Neoplatonism.
While anti-Catholic rhetoric from atheists and non-Catholic Christians often exaggerates how much the Church has adopted from these sources and claims it has had a negative impact on the faith, the fact of inculturation is undeniable and actually quite positive. Grace builds on and perfects nature. In His providence he has guided humanity towards the truth and prepared us to receive the Gospel. When human beings strive forward, even with some mistakes, God takes what is good and makes it better, while purging what is mistaken or evil.
The Day of the Dead today
Today, the Day of the Dead is celebrated by most Catholics throughout Mexico in an entirely orthodox way. There’s nothing wrong with the skulls, the “bread of the dead,” or the brightly colored orange “cempasúchil” (marigold) flowers, just as there’s nothing wrong with Christmas trees or Advent wreaths, which also have roots in pagan traditions.
That’s not to say there are never any syncretism, confusion or unhealthy practices on the occasion of the celebration. Indeed, to keep the celebrations on track, some dioceses in Mexico have published guides on their websites. They encourage prayer for the dead, remembering the communion of the saints, keeping Christ at the center as our Redeemer who won eternal life and resurrection for us, and obtaining the plenary indulgences associated with All Souls’ Day.
They also recognize the feast as an important element of Mexican tradition and identity, and warn against the corrupting influence of … none other than the United States, with its distortion of Mexican culture and its confusion of Day of the Dead with Halloween. They also warn against the cult of Santa Muerte, a relatively recent invention tied to the culture surrounding drug trafficking and not specifically related to the Day of the Dead.
Can Catholics celebrate the Day of the Dead? The answer is clearly “yes,” if it is understood properly as the celebration of All Souls Day with certain cultural, folkloric aspects of Mexican culture.