Skeletons, Skulls and Altars: ‘Day of the Dead’ Festivals Held Nationwide to Remember Deceased, Welcome Spirits ‘Back for a Visit’

Screenshot: YouTube/Maxico Mexico Channel

Festivals and other celebrations for “El Dia De Los Muertos”—or “The Day of the Dead”—are currently underway in cities nationwide and around the world. The annual Latin American-Roman Catholic observance is meant to honor the lives of deceased loved ones, but with the belief that the spirits of the departed temporarily find their way back to their families to remember the things they once loved.

“God is calling us to follow Him and to ‘come out from among them (the pagans, heathen and unbelievers) and be separate’ (2 Cor. 6:17),” Mike Gendron of Proclaiming the Gospel Ministries in Plano, Texas told Christian News Network.

“As Christians seek to abide in God’s word, they will become like the Psalmist who gained understanding from God’s word and hated every false way (Ps. 119:104). He wrote, ‘How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, who seek Him with all their heart. They also do no unrighteousness; they walk in His ways” (Ps. 119:2-3).”

HISTORY AND TRADITIONS OF ‘THE DAY OF THE DEAD’

The three-day observance, which begins on Oct. 31 and ends on Nov. 2, is believed to have originated in Mexico with the Aztecs, and was merged with Roman Catholicism after the conquistadors began taking over South American empires.

“When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, they encountered the native Nahua peoples, including the Aztecs. When autumn came, the conquistadors witnessed the extended rituals celebrated by these people honoring both death and the fall harvest,” one report outlines.

“For the Aztecs, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (literally translated as ‘Lady of the Dead’) presided over these harvest rituals. The celebrations were built around fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers, foods and drink,” it notes.

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As various Roman Catholic orders sought to convert the people, the traditions continued much in the same way, but the celebration was moved to the first of November to coincide with the Catholic observances of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

To this day, those of a Latin American heritage observe El Dia De Los Muertos as a way to remember their loved ones who have died. While different from Halloween, the holiday utilizes images of skulls and skeletons in both decoration and costume. Face-painting and other art often involves intricate design as celebrators depict themselves as a skeleton for the day.

Sugar or chocolate skulls are a common edible creation, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is also often made to look like a skeletal figure.

Altar including cross and artwork of virgin Mary

Most commonly, observers create a candle-lit altar, known as an ofrenda (offering), that features a photo of the deceased person with a number of their favorite foods and/or drinks, as well as other items that they enjoyed in their life. Certain elements are left with the belief that the spirits of the departed can “find their way back” to their families during the celebration.

“Every ofrenda also includes the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners, represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread. Candles are often left in the form of a cross to represent the cardinal directions, so the spirits can find their way,” outlines El Paso, Inc.

“On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit,” also writes author Frances Ann Day.

“November 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.”

Intermountain Catholic reports that Roman Catholic observers often include a cross on their altar, explaining that “[a] salt cross on the altar is meant to purify the spirits; an ash cross is set to help the spirits to get out of Purgatory.”

“Three-tier altars represent Heaven, Purgatory and Earth. They can also represent Heaven, Earth and the other world, according to the Aztecs; or in the Catholic tradition, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the outlet also explains. “Seven-tier altars represents the seven levels that must be passed through to reach Heaven.”

Some theorize that the souls of the dead are carried by Monarch butterflies since the first of the colorful winged insects reach Mexico around Nov. 1.

“The local people have long believed the monarchs are the returning spirits of their deceased relatives, mysteriously arriving at the same time each year, coinciding with the Day of the Dead. Aztec tradition holds that the souls of the departed will return as hummingbirds and butterflies,” outlines Natural Habitat Adventures.

Festivals and parades are also a part of the Day of the Dead celebration, with much music, dancing and eating.

The 2017 Disney-Pixar animated film “Coco” centers on the Mexican holiday and a boy named Miguel, who travels to the Land of the Dead—the “land of his ancestors”—and meets some of his deceased relatives, who are now skeletons. He encounters his great-great grandfather, who he learns was a musician in life, just as Miguel aspires to be. Miguel is informed that he must return to the land of the living by sunrise by obtaining a “blessing,” or he too will be among the dead.

The film grossed $807 million at the box office.

AMERICAN CELEBRATIONS

Screenshot/Facebook

A number of celebrations for The Day of the Dead are taking place in American cities nationwide, in the form of festivals, art exhibits, fireworks displays, movie screenings and eatery specials, and activities for children.

On Oct. 28, a Day of the Dead festival was held in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in the Plaza District, featuring face-painting, an art show, music and dance, and a “Skeleton Parade-Day of the Dead Procession.”

In Waco, Texas, a special Dia De Los Muertos exhibit opened on Oct. 31 at the Art Forum of Waco, which included an ofrenda, artwork and face-painting.

The annual Dia De Los Muertos fireworks celebration is scheduled for this evening at Woodlawn Lake Park in San Antonio, and a Muertitos Fest is being held in the city both Friday and Saturday, featuring a best-dressed contest, “a multidisciplinary showcase of student art, altars to honor the departed, family folk art workshops, food booths, an artisan mercado as well as live cultural performances highlighting local dancers, musicians and entertainers.”

In El Paso, a Dead of the Dead festival is scheduled for tonight at North Star Elementary School, which will be showing the aforementioned Disney “Coco” movie on the lawn. Face-painting and bouncy houses will also be a part of the event.

A Day of the Dead festival was held from Oct. 28-30 at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in New York City, with altars, folk art, sugar skulls, mask-making and music.

“This tradition is rooted in the native Mexican belief that life on earth is a preparation for the next world and of the importance of maintaining a strong relationship to the dead. Join us and dedicate our ofrenda (altar) to your departed loved-ones by placing copies of photographs,” the event webpage reads.

The Newark Public Library in New York is hosting a teen lock-in Day of the Dead event on Friday night, with food, games, crafts and “scary movies” rated PG-13 to R.

In Coral Springs, Florida, a Day of the Dead Margarita Festival is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, featuring a live mariachi band, margaritas and tequilas, face painting, cotton candy and popcorn, sugar skull coloring pages for children, and the urging to “dress to impress.”

The city of Birmingham, Alabama presented its 16th annual Day of Dead festival on Friday, with altars, art, dance, food and children’s activities.

“Each autumn, the living invite their dead to join them in a festival of communion—to return home again and, for a few hours, to sit by the hearth and warm their cold bones before returning to the land of the dead,” the event page reads.

In Los Angeles, California, a nine-day Day of the Dead festival is currently underway, featuring a nightly procession of those costumed as skeletons that begins and ends with a “traditional Mayan blessing/soul cleansing.” The event also includes community altars, skeleton face painting and a 5K “Run of the Dead.”

“For over 30 years, the merchants on Olvera Street have celebrated Dia de los Muertos. The celebration has evolved to incorporate the pre-Columbian, Aztec, Mayan and Catholic rituals surrounding death,” the event website reads. “Death is a part of life, and so we honor it.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that over 200 children from 10 Catholic schools in the city gathered this week at Calvary Cemetery where they created altars inside the mausoleum, and made sugar skulls and masks on the cemetery lawn while listening to the song “Un Poco Loco” from Disney’s “Coco.”

“This is a demonstration of our strong sense of love,” Florencia Teran, a teacher from Our Lady of Guadalupe School, told the outlet. “We’re bringing back our culture, our tradition.”

Similarly, on Oct. 28, a Dia De Los Muertos event was held at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in San Jose, with a description of the occasion reading, “Celebrate the day with a reunion of sorts. It is said that during El Dia de los Muertos, the veil between the living and the dead disappears. Observe the spiritual side of the tradition at Calvary Catholic Cemetery.”

Bowers Museum in Santa Ana is hosting a Day of the Dead festival on Sunday, featuring face painting, art, and performances by Rhythmo Mariachi Kids, Folklorico Raices de Mexico, Trio Tres Souls and Xipe Totec Danza Azteca.

“Celebrate the Day of the Dead at Bowers! Dia de los Muertos is based on the Mexican belief that our departed loved ones come back to earth to be with us every year in a joyful celebration that lasts for three days,” its event page reads.

The popular search engine Google even observed “El Dia De Los Muertos” by using a skull doodle in its logo for Oct. 2.

IS IT BIBLICAL?

Gendron

While some say that the Day of the Dead is simply a way to honor those who have died and to rekindle fond memories of years past, others state that aspects of the observance, such as its belief that spirits of the dead can somehow return to their loved ones—even for a day—are unbiblical.

“The pagan holidays of Samhain and the Day of the Dead embrace a theme of communicating with the dead,” Gendron told Christian News Network. “Satan’s first lie was ‘Ye shall not surely die.’ Since then, he has perpetuated the lie that when you die, you aren’t really dead. This lie convinces many people that the dead are really alive and are able to communicate with them [and woo them back].”

“Since the spirits of the dead know nothing and their thoughts have perished, they would not know their families or know how to find their way back,” he said, citing Ecclesiastes 9:5 and Psalm 146:4. “The Bible also makes it clear that these pagan practices are an abomination to the Lord.”

Gendron, a former Roman Catholic of over 30 years who seeks to lead Catholics in Scriptural truth, said that a number of pagan practices and traditions have been synchronized into the religion.

“The Catholic sacrament of extreme unction, when death is imminent, originated in Babylon as an anointing for the last journey into the mysteries of death,” he explained. “Catholicism uses bones of saints to commemorate their dead heroes, as did Babylon.”

“Transubstantiation where round wafers are said to be changed into the physical body of Christ and eaten is a practice similar to the Babylonians who worshipped Baal in the same way, using round wafers as a symbol of the sun god,” Gendron continued. “Purgatory and prayers for the dead have served both ancient Babylon and Catholicism as a cleansing.”

He said that he desires for those who are involved in pagan traditions and rituals to esteem the word of God with serious honor and reverence.

“Knowing God’s judgments against these pagan practices should cause people to tremble in fear of Him (Ps. 119:120),” Gendron stated. “It is my prayer that the truth of God’s word will be taken seriously and will set people free from religious and pagan deception. We need to destroy speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5).”

Colossians 2:8 reads, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”


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