Kids love Halloween; tricking, treating and especially wearing costumes. Some kids like being mischievous. I did and I had a specialty.
How did mischief ever become a part of our Halloween traditions? I assume it reflects a belief in malevolent spirits who return from the grave to pester us and otherwise do us harm. Among costumes and masks donned at our Halloween festivities, looking like the devil is de rigueur and certainly suggests that misbehavior is condoned if not demonically encouraged.
As a boy, I thought Halloween was great. The big thrill was being allowed out after dark. Under normal circumstances, I had to be in before sundown. (These were the days when children played outside without adult supervision.) The additional thrill was that, under cover of darkness, I was free to be bad with impunity. These are special moments in any boy’s life, even for a choirboy such as I was.
Popping streetlights was my specialty. Neighborhood streetlights consisted then of round scalloped reflectors and a large light bulb inserted in the center. Hitting it required patience, and, I would offer, skill – pitching about 10 rocks before I finally hit the bulb is a respectable score. When struck, the bulb would first hiss and crackle for about ten seconds, then after a brilliant flash, the street quickly went dark. While enjoying the rush that goes with being devious, I’d run gleefully into the empty lot on the corner and hide among the Sumac trees, keeping a sharp eye out for any adults who might have seen me and could be called as witnesses. I was never caught. Today I confess my misdeeds because anyone witnessing my perfidy is long dead.
Americans give hardly any thought to the existence of spirits and are especially skeptical about spirits of the dead. Yankees are pragmatic. They don’t like thinking of themselves as superstitious. Yet ghost stories are as popular with kids as with adults.
Mexicans regard spirits with a special exuberance. Mexicans are fun loving people, real party animals especially while enjoying the company of the dead. About the time we’re celebrating a secular Halloween in the states, Mexico celebrates its favorite festival, Dia de Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. This is a time to gather with all your dead friends and relatives, dress up garishly, eat, drink and be merry. Families arrange picnics at the gravesites of loved ones and bring food and drink to share with those beyond the veil. The quick and the dead hang out together for three whole days, catching up. An all-day Irish wake with all the Jameson’s and Tullamore Dew mourners could drink would be small potatoes when compared to Mexico’s festive Dia de Muertos. It’s a party to die for Mexico’s tourist industry touts the event as “the world’s liveliest party given for the dead.”
Having never been to Mexico, I first became aware of the festival in a photograph taken by the celebrated Mexican photographer Manuel Alverez Bravo. It’s a haunting image, all the more evocative for the dark shadows lingering around a young girl, who is obviously happy and at ease. She’s holding the traditional white skull in her hand, the skulls made from sugar, one of the signature icons of the festival. Skulls appear everywhere in homes and on the street, and come in all sizes.
Nobody comes as they are. Costumes abound, even on the dead or what’s left of them. Everyone’s dressed to kill. Skeletons are displayed, arrayed in splendid raiment. I notice by the gowns that skeleton’s wear, that most are women. I’m not sure what that means since nothing about dying is sexist.
One of the three days is dedicated to deceased children, called the Day of Innocents. Here, families will leave toys and sweets and games by the grave. For adults, various native alcoholic beverages are placed in offering along with traditional Mexican dishes. The deceased are invited to indulge as they wish since drinking and driving are non-issues.
What’s party without flowers? Marigolds are the official flowers of The Day of the Dead. Their rich colors and pungent scent Mexicans believe guide the souls of the departed to the party.
This festival, as it is today, has taken around twenty-eight hundred years to evolve in Mexico, but the central issue is the same; the dead may be out of sight, but not out of mind. Further, they can be enticed to return to the land of the living by the promise of a big party. Since special treats and dishes for the deceased are placed on home altars and gravesites, and since the dead remain incorporeal through the festivities, the food and drink doesn’t disappear as it might if eaten by a living soul. Mexicans believe the departed spirits consume the essential nutrients of the dishes, leaving the food or drink as it was, but without any nutrients left. Considering the number of guests at these affairs, the problem of what to do with leftovers must be daunting.
Occasionally I do dream about my mother and it is true that in some dreams she’s wagging her finger at me. Do you suppose that her spirit returns in my dreams to rebuke me? It makes me feel terrible, not so much for my offences, but that her return wasn’t welcomed with a party
Do I believe in spirits of the dead? I surely do. Every one of us has been fashioned and shaped by all the spirits that have ever lived on earth. We are the heirs of eternity.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.