The release of Mattel's Dia de Muertos toy is a good occasion to remember that this is a Catholic feast.
The authentic celebration of Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is recognized by the Catholic Church as the universal feast of All Souls’ Day on November 2. And unlike the now secular holiday Halloween — a dark night of tricks and treats — the Day of the Dead is a colorful and joyous (if bittersweet) celebration, dedicated to remembering the lives of the departed and offering prayers for those in Purgatory.
(Of course, secular Halloween is also deeply rooted in Catholicism, as it is actually the Eve of All Hallow’s Day, or All Saints’ Day on November 1.)
On November 1, All Saints’ Day, Catholics celebrate all those who are in Heaven.
On November 2, All Souls’ Day, Catholics pray for all those who have died and particularly for the souls in Purgatory.
Day of the Dead is increasingly a part of pop culture outside of Mexico, especially after Disney released a movie that is (somewhat) about the feast. Released in 2017, Coco brought the beautiful colors and figures of Día de los Muertos to the big screen, even if it fell short in portraying what the feast means regarding the afterlife and the Communion of Saints.
Barbie is now venturing into a celebration of Day of the Dead, with a limited edition Dia de Muertos Barbie dressed for the feast having just gone on sale this week.
It’s a good occasion for Catholics to remember that this is an actual Church feast.
The Day of the Dead calls upon the Catholic understanding of death as having been vanquished by Christ, and through his conquest, having become the door to eternal life. Thus, it is a reminder that all of life on earth is also a preparation for death, and that in death, we will be reunited with all those who have gone on before us to eternal life.
All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead truly are a multi-day holiday event in Mexico and a time for family and friends to gather and pray for the deceased.
For All Souls’ Day in Mexico, private home altars (ofrendas) are constructed to display photos of departed loved ones, as well as sugar skulls (calaveras), and vibrant flowers.
Families will also visit cemeteries and bring food and drink offerings that the deceased would have enjoyed while they were alive. Everyone will enjoy pan de muerto (bread of the dead). And for the finale, tens of thousands participate in lively street processions (desfiles) featuring music and dancing, magnificent costumes, and, of course, the iconic Calaveras Catrinas (elegantly dressed skeleton ladies, based on a 1910 engraving by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada).
Home altars in honor of deceased loved ones are probably the characteristic element of Mexican celebrations of the Día de los Muertos, a beautifully Catholic way of living All Saints and All Souls Day, with an intermingling of some historic indigenous traditions as well. As with Halloween itself, secular culture even in Mexico can sometimes miss the point of these altars (or emphasize Aztec elements over Catholics ones), but that shouldn’t be a reason for the faithful to abandon them.
A home altar brings a unique opportunity to call to mind our deceased loved ones, particularly for young kids who may never have met them. It can make the young and not-so-young feel close to grandparents, and remember the roots of the family, as Pope Francis is always encouraging.
Most importantly, an authentic celebration of Día de los Muertos is a reminder that the very best thing we can do to honor our dead is to pray for them and all the departed.
May your perpetual light shine upon them, O Lord, and may they rest in peace.