On Facebook, some friends noted they watched the “Day of the Dead” celebration in California and Tuscon. This is a Mexican custom which not so much “celebrates death” as it mocks death, and in most Latin American countries, it now coincides with All Saints day (November 1) and All Soul’s day (November 2), the days when it is the Catholic custom of remembering our loved ones who have died.

Watching the US TV channels here in the Philippines, it seems they have cut out the “remember the dead/mock the devil” part, and emphasize the negative aspects of Halloween. I’ve heard all sorts of explanations of the holiday, from a Christian version of the fall Keltic festivals to a “Guy Faulks day” celebration from the UK.

This usually doesn’t bother Catholics, who see good in all good things human, and reinforce the good in pagan fiestas.

Here in the Philippines, Halloween is still a minor celebration. The big day is November 1, the day of the dead.

The country literally shuts down, as everyone travels back to their ancestral towns to visit the graves of their ancestors.

We visit the graves, clean up the debris and dead leaves from the gravesites and then decorate the graves with flowers to honor the loved ones. We light a candle and say our prayers for them, asking them to also pray for us, because after all, even if they are dead, they are still part of our family, and care for those of us still on earth.

From 2010-11-01

Finally, we picnic and hold a little party. Usually folks bring food, but if you forgot, there are plenty of vendors.

The traffic is terrible, and in Manila, they make the roads one way, and publish the maps in the newspapers so folks can visit without a lot of delay. They often have rules about selling things and prohibiting beer in the cemeteries in the big cities, but here in the Provinces, they are less strict. The cops are here, but mainly to direct traffic. You can buy soft drinks, fresh Buku juice, San Mig (beer), all sorts of snacks, and even toys for the kids who might become bored when their parents sit and talk about the family with each other. Forgot candles or flowers? They’re for sale too.

Usually Catholics attend a mass as part of the celebration, either at church or at the chapel in the newer part of the cemetery.

So is the Philippine version a variation of the Mexican one, or a local Asian custom changed by the Spanish? I don’t know. Our Day of the Dead seems to have more in common with the Chinese festival, which is held in the Spring than with the Mexican one.

In the US, however, there is no similar festival where everyone honors their ancestors, unless one considers Memorial day, which mainly honors our war dead. I wonder why.

Maybe it is because the US is a Protestant country, and the Puritans were horrified at anything that hinted at paganism, (some of their modern equivalents say we need to celebrate “Reformation day”. What a terrible idea, as if celebrating a man who mocked Catholics as evil and the pope as the anti Christ is a good idea).

Personally, I think that few in the US visit their ancestors graves because we no longer live for generations in the same town.

But I think it the lack of celebrating the equivalent of the Day of the Dead in the US is because the optimistic Americans don’t want to think they might someday die. Better to pretend Halloween it is a holiday about witches and ghosts than to celebrate a holiday that hints that we someday too will join our ancestors.

As for Halloween, I agree with Sister Mary Martha:

I wouldn’t start a Holy War over, what is for a small child, a gentle little holiday involving candy and dress up.  It’s such fun to dress up.  That’s all they care about. That, and candy.  Yay! Candy!

It’s not really a demonic holiday.  It’s a very Catholic holiday.  Holiday/Holy Day.

Yes, and perhaps the “cure” for those who think it is only about devils should add the entire festival, and visit the graves of their loved ones the next day.

And then, we will celebrate the fact that our loved ones are still part of our family by remembering them, and we can mock death by celebrating the real idea behind “the day of the dead”

Oh death, where is thy victory? Death where is thy sting?


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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