There used to be a time in the year the veil between the spirit world and the mortal world was supposed to be thinned. It made sense to land that time at the changing of the seasons, when the natural harvesting, dying, and hibernation cycle of fall was well underway and the first chill of winter was detectable. It was a time to be watchful, yes, as not all spiritual forces are good. But it was also a time to pray for and think about loved ones who had moved on into that realm. This was true in Druidic harvest festivals and Aztec autumnal rituals alike.
The Christians syncretized these traditions (and possibly added their own original content as well) into All Hallow’s Eve and All Hallows Day, where the saints (the “hallowed” ones) are honored and recently departed souls are prayed for. As is usual with many streams of Christianity, what came before was rebranded as “demonic”, and the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. We rightly as Christians did not worship other gods, but we also lost some of the cultural tradition and possibly spiritual understanding that did not require that worship. I’m not advocating that we watch Friday The 13th at church, or that we don Druidic robes and pray to Celtic deities, but I think it’s safe to let your kids wear a mask and trick-or-treat, or to put a pumpkin or skull in your yard.
I have read several observations about how bad we are at dealing with death here. I think Coco resonated with so many Americans who didn’t grow up with Dia De Los Muertos traditions because we’re hungry for a way to stay connected, however tenuously. We are supposed to feel good because our loved ones are “in a better place”. We’re supposed to delight in the notion of their arrival in eternal paradise, which itself is limited by our limited human perception of what is good and enjoyable. But we’re sad. We miss them so much. And we occasionally get signs they’re watching over us, connected, but we don’t have language or tools to process that.
I think it would be good for non-Latino Americans to not appropriate, but adopt some of the Dia De Los Muertos traditions with appreciation, respect, and deference to the originators. I don’t know how that works. We managed to adopt the Gaelic traditions and spread them nationwide in a way that seemed to work, but in our present context, I don’t know what sharing a tradition looks like. I suppose it looks like developing real relationships with the people who own the tradition, being invited to join in, and entering the way a respectful and welcome guest enters a home for a dinner. Perhaps you’ll be given a plate to take with you, and perhaps not, but you can enjoy the gathering either way, even if you can’t cook that delicious dish they served for yourself.
We emphasize the fear part of these holidays but not the part that tells us that death is natural, a part of existence, and doesn’t have to be so scary. Each painted face and mask says that I, too, am mortal, will someday be bones, but I am not afraid. I will celebrate transition through the veil, and I will know that however this works, whether its an energetic echo, the residue they left through my memories, or an actual sentient presence, my loved ones never really leave me.