It's October. Halloween is coming fast, and with it All Saints' Day, then Dia de los Muertos. When you lump together all the traditions, both secular and spiritual, Christian and pagan alike, you end up with a three-day celebration of good and evil, life and death, and most of all -- lots of candy. For me this is a favorite time of year, a time to explore weighty concepts that we normally avoid. Popular society seems determined to cleanse itself of "superstitious" concepts like religious virtue and evil spirits. Our society is particularly excellent at avoiding death. Bodies are sent to a mortuary, not cleaned and prepared at home. We try not to talk about the dead to their loved ones to avoid bringing up painful memories. Yet these are phenomenally basic ideas that every human being must experience and contemplate at one time or another. What is good? What is evil? Do they involve a God and unseen forces, or are they merely labels placed on culturally accepted norms, descriptions of purely human behavior that vary widely from place to place and are completely arbitrary in nature? What happens when we die? How do we confront the loss of those we love? These are the questions evoked by the season, questions everyone must ask. (These questions plus the all important, "Which houses give out the good stuff and which try to stick you with something cheesy like fresh fruit or toothbrushes?") For those of certain Christian tradition, the three days are linked. All Hallow's Eve is the night before All Saints' Day. All Souls' Day is the next. The celebrations range from an antiseptic evening of sport, buying a plastic mask of a favorite cartoon character and collecting treats, to visceral three-day celebrations where people prepare loved ones' favorite foods in preparation for their arrival, believing that the very threshold between Life and Death is torn asunder for one day a year to allow the dead to return for a visit, and where people face the fact that they will die, mocking it, fearing it, coping with it as best they can. Dia de los Muertos has become more personal to our family over the years as we've lost people close to us. Now in addition to the silly chalk skeletons I sketch on the driveway or the cut-outs I pin on the walls, there are some that represent my grandfathers, a good friend who died in a car accident, an even dearer one who died by suicide. I remember the good times, the things I admired, the things that were important to them as I try to come up with symbols to decorate their effigies. My family looks at the skeletons dancing across our driveway and porch and tries to figure out which ones they know. We smile and laugh over the old stories and remember stories we haven't told before. We're too far from the graves of our loved ones to place flowers on their headstones every month. I didn't get to attend the funerals of either of my grandfathers. But this holiday gives us all the opportunity to make a gesture of remembrance. It's an important part of human nature -- when we love someone, it's not enough for us to simply feel that emotion. We are moved to tell each other or show the emotion somehow. That need doesn't end when the person we love is dead. Even if one doesn't believe the dearly departed can still be aware of the gesture, we still have a need to make it. I personally trust that my grandfathers and friends are somewhere where they can see and enjoy the remembrances of the holiday, but even if they aren't, having a time of year where I can bring them up without needing to be melancholy makes me feel better. As odd as it may sound, Dia de los Muertos is a time to enjoy and celebrate the dead. And eat lots and lots of candy in their honor. The neighbors may shake their heads. Why is that skeleton wearing a space suit? My Grandpa Quay loved science fiction. Why does that one have a peg leg with a chicken stuck to it? That's from my favorite true story about Grandpa Queen, who did, in fact, have a wooden leg. Why is that skeleton holding a huge bag of candy? He's just there to make the other ones look good. It's el Dia de los Muertos. Have a little fun with it. The people you're celebrating would want you to.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.
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