Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ghost Story

It’s becoming funny sometimes, as if I really live in Los Angeles or New York or some other city in the United States of America, that people – internet friends that often forget where I live - will invariably ask me what I’m doing for Halloween. Here in Mexico, Halloween is not a relevant holiday. Obviously, what with being so close to the border, there are some children who get taken out in costume and go door to door and beg for candy, but not many. And they are, these children, mostly very young, toddlers sometimes, and their parents often take them to some of the local businesses more than knocking on the doors of neighbors. But here, all of it is the exception rather than the rule.

Yesterday I heard some whacko radio talk show host going on and on about how some Tijuana children are brought over to the United States of America by their parents on Halloween night to do some trick-or-treating, and how awful that is. “They know that here in the U.S. we give out candy bars and good stuff, and down there they only get little things,” he said at one point. I laughed. I wanted to call him up and offer that, perhaps, Mexican families also go up there during Thanksgiving because the turkeys up there are much larger and taste better than the small and scrawny ones from Mexico.

Of course, there is no Thanksgiving holiday in Mexico, and Mexico does not have a Halloween.

Halloween has its roots, obviously, in pagan festivals, perhaps dating to Roman times and certainly celebrated by the ancient Celtics. It is widely considered to have its meaning tied to some sort of an end-of-summer celebration, in that the time of the year where lightness turns to darkness, those on the other side of life have an opportunity to pass through onto the living plane of existence. People were able to welcome their past relatives during that time, while bad spirits were warded off by the wearing of masks. In a nutshell, that and bonfires and cattle slaughtered for winter storage and other activities made up the festival now celebrated as Halloween.

Sometime in the ninth century, the Catholic Church attempted to hijack it, moving All Saints’ Day from May 13th to November 1st, but it didn’t catch on enough to change much of anything. It changed of its own accord. Bonfires became a nuisance, someone invented refrigeration, and when Houdini died on Halloween in 1926 and never managed to come back as promised, everyone pretty much gave up on the notion that our dead relatives could possibly manage a visit. At least, that’s the way it has changed in Europe and in the United States of America and so on.

* * * *

In Mexico, beginning the evening at midnight, Día de los Inocentes or Day of the Innocents begins, followed by Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead on Monday. These celebrations and festivals date back to perhaps 3,000 years ago, observed by the Aztecs and other indigenous civilizations in Mexico. During the Aztec reign, it was celebrated for an entire month! In modern times, these two days are celebrated somewhat differently, depending on region here, but the core elements include candles, breads, fruits, candies, flowers, and skulls. Many people visit the gravesites of their ancestors and leave flowers and decorate the sites in various ways.

Get this: The Aztecs believed that, during the month of August, it’s less complicated for the souls of their ancestors to visit them in life! Where have we heard that before? Oh, and wait, it gets better: Why use masks for the celebration when you can use skulls?! Skulls were often symbolized in Aztec lore to represent birth and rebirth. Having a few skulls around the house was not at all uncommon back then. Fascinating stuff.

Day of the Innocents generally celebrates the spirits of dead children, which has obvious significance for those who have lost a child or a sibling. Day of the Dead is all about those who passed in adulthood. The rituals are the same. My first Day of the Dead was confusing to me, I had never heard of it. While looking oddly at a shrine constructed on Rocio’s mother’s kitchen table, Rocio patiently explained it to me. I ignorantly considered it nice of the Mexicans to borrow from my traditional culture and put their own spin on it. I was like the guy on the radio yesterday who offered the point about Mexicans from the border cities taking their kids across because the candy is better over there.

* * * *

Earlier today, I read an article from a Christian web site that claimed Halloween to be the Devil’s holiday. The author recommended that Christians shouldn’t celebrate it. I felt pretty bad about that at first, but when I thought about it later, I then saw it as some sort of a testament to the fact that some people are truly frightened by that which they do not understand. I reckon that some people are quite horrified at the very idea of speaking with the soul of an ancestor. Not me. For example, I would love to speak with my grandmother again some day.

Sometimes people ask me if I believe in a God and maybe a Jesus, or an afterlife, or whatever. Many of my friends are devout atheists, while others are devout Christians or Mormons or Muslims or Jews. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with any of it, actually. But they ask me, nevertheless, because they want me to align myself perhaps, or maybe they are just curious. My answer is this: I have absolutely no idea. Sometimes, they might express displeasure at that answer. The atheists think it ridiculous to even consider the notion of a creator, and the others seem to pity me for not having any faith.

And then my response to them is even more inflammatory: Not only do I not know, neither do you.

The amazing thing, though, the thing that transcends atheism or religion, is obvious to me. It should be quite obvious to the radio talk show host and to the author of the article advising Christians against Halloween. The very notion that two completely different civilizations happened upon the very same idea and celebrated with almost the same ceremonies is enough to convince me that something is going on. I mean, that’s the real ghost story, isn’t it? You’re telling me that three thousand years ago, the Celts and the Aztecs simultaneously arrived at the same basic ceremony never having heard of one other?

Scary stuff, indeed.


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8:34 PM, November 13, 2009  
Blogger EmJay said...

Not only THIS religious ceremony...most of the other ones have been concurrently celebrated across eons and cultures...or just plain borrowed and stolen. AND, fairy tales. The basic plot of Cinderella has been found in virtually every culture on earth, dating back to before writing and travel could account for it. Hence, Jung's brilliant idea of the Collective Unconscious.

10:49 PM, March 10, 2010  

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