Thursday, 1 November 2012

El día de los muertos v Halloween

... v British Halloween v Guy Fawkes Night.

There can be only one! Or can there? Photo courtesy of The Mexican Londoner
Yes, there's a lot going on in late October / early November in my world.

Now, MexiGeek is many things, but he is not a cultural anthropologist, so please don't think I have some kind of expert knowledge of these holidays. This is going to be a personal and subjective look at three and a half important Autumn festivals.

Let's start with the Mexican one: El Día de los Muertos, "The Day of the Dead". Repeating my point about not being an expert in this, I first heard of this festival in the god-awful film The Crow: City of Angels, which is more horrible than a crate full of small pox blankets.

I have since learned more about this fascinating holiday (really two days), though I have never been to real Day of the Dead festivities (more's the pity).

Day of the D read is a commemoration of your decreased loved ones. It takes place on 1 November (also the Catholic Feast of All Saints) and continues through 2 November (also called All Souls' Day).

(Neither of these are official holidays or días feriados oficiales in Mexico, because Mexico has a separation of church and state that makes the US look like the flipping Vatican and doesn't give days off for religious holidays.)

As Thomasina Miers told us on Sunday Brunch last weekend, DOD is a chance to commune with your dear departed and celebrate their life. On these two days each year, the dead are able to travel back to the land of the living for a visit, and fine thing is to throw them a massive fiesta and cook their favourite foods (plus some extra seasonal treats).

This celebration of life is joined up with the imagery of death, and culminates with a party on your loved ones's gravestones.

Probably the most striking symbols of DOD are the calaveritas, sugar skulls eaten as candy. Less famous is the pan de muerto, "bread of the dead", which is a sweet celebration bread (like you'd eat at Christmas in some countries) but with a bone motif as well.

Then there are the elaborate altars and brightly-coloured skeleton decorations, the marigold arches which symbolize the doorway to the land of the dead, and the raucous processions to the cemetery.

Tamales, those mainstays of communal Mexican food, are also involved. I'd certainly come back from the dead for good tamales.

Though it's festive, DOD is a bittersweet holiday. The first day of it is devoted to dead children (El Día de los Angelitos or "day of the little angels"). And even for those who left this world peacefully at a ripe old age, the dead are still dead.

Still, it seems to be a happy festival, throwing the light of life in one of the darkest parts of human existence.

And it's typically Mexican as well. Firstly, it's based on an Aztec ritual. The church moved it from its original date in August to the Feast of All Saints in order to Christianize it (they did the opposite with Christmas, moving Jesus' birthday, which no one knows anyway, to the date of a European pagan winter festival).

And the imagery and attitude itself are thoroughly Mexican. I can hardly think of another culture whose relationship with death is such that they can mock it while at the same time commemorating those it took from them.

Unless you're a closet Goth, like me (and you wondered why I always dress in black!), a non-Mexican is likely to find the Day of the Dead somewhat macabre. In this increasingly global age, where all our cultures are getting mixed together and we focus more and more on what we have in common, a nation's attitude to death remains personal and distinctive.

In fact, it's been said that the attitude to death is one of the principal things that keeps the US and the UK apart. After 11 years in Britain I'm still not sure what it is that defines a British view of death; probably some mixture of a "stiff upper lip", self-deprecating humour, and complete denial (whereas the American view of death is based on over-dramatized sentimentality).

But the attitude to death implied by El Día de los Muertos is different. This version of death is omnipotent and omnipresent and yet non-threatening, imutable and unconquerable but not unassailable.

It is mysterious and yet its very commonness (for we'll all end up there in the end) makes it safe to taunt. For, really, what more can death do than kill you? And he's gonna do that anyway.

Now contrast that with Halloween, which is also about the dead returning to the land of the living, and also contains gruesome and macabre imagery. But on Halloween - or at least one version of it - we use the imagery to scare the dead back to their own realm.

Death is frightening; we either have to protect ourselves from it or disarm it by turning it into a game.

I say "one version" of Halloween because Halloween was once my favourite holiday, and I read a lot about where it came from. And I never found two sources that agreed on its origins, nor any one source that seemed definitive.

What we know is that the name is short for "All Hallows' Ev'en", meaning "the night before the Feast of All Saints", which it (it may not always have been celebrated on the same day). Some versions of the Halloween story say it was natural for people to believe that, on the night before one of the holiest feast days, that evil would have free reign.

But is that really a natural assumption?

I've also read some books that claimed it was originally a Celtic festival honouring the passing of a powerful god (some, like modern-day Wiccans, say Cernunos) into the land of the dead (which is meant to symbolize the dying of the earth as Autumn sets in). This leaves a rip in the border between our world and the underworld, allowing the dead to come back.

Whether or not any of this is true, Halloween is now a day when American kids dress up in costumes and go house-to-house ringing the doorbell and saying "Trick or Treat!", at which point the people who live there will give them some candy.

If you're lucky, the people will have decorated their house with lots of spooky things and may be playing spooky music and they'll probably try to give you a fright as well as candy. That at least is my memory of Halloween in California.

Back then Halloween was the highlight of my year. I've always loved horror imagery, and I looked forward to everyone in the world (it seemed to me) finally doing what I wanted to do (which was dress up like a monster and try to scare people all night) more than I looked forward to Christmas.

One year my dad built an entire family of jack o'lantern people on our front lawn. And this guy in our neighbourhood was a movie special effects artist (because that's the kind of neighbours you get in LA), and his house was always incredible. One year there were zombie hands digging themselves out of a grave.

Then my family moved to Colorado, where there's usually snow on the ground on October 31, and Halloween was never the same again. Who the hell wants to trick-or-treat in the snow? Or the pouring rain, now that I life in Scotland?

Which brings us to what do Brits do for Halloween.

Well, pseudo-Celtic origins or not, Halloween is basically an American holiday, like Thanksgiving, so for a long time the Brits didn't do anything. Then they saw Halloween back in the 80s and said "Jolly good! Let's have some of that!"

But as usual when Brits adopt things from America, it's still not quite the same.

If the symbol of Day of the Dead is a skull or skeleton, the symbol of Halloween is a Jack o'Lantern, which (if you don't already know) is a big hollowed-out orange pumpkin carved with a scary face and with a candle placed inside it.

Pumpkins come from the Americas (from Mexico, in fact). So they didn't used to get them in Britain, which is why my wife spent her childhood carving turnips for Halloween.

Yes, turnips.

They are a bitch to carve. Your hands end up raw. And when you put the candle in, they stink! (Pumpkins, on the other hand, smell delicious when the candle is lit. There's nothing like roast pumpkin.)

They have pumpkins here now (in fact there's like a pile of them at Tesco). And all the shops are happy to sell lots of candy (which Brits call "sweeties") and costumes, so that's all taken care of. My three-year-old even had a Halloween party at her nursery (this year and last year).

But they don't go trick-or-treating. They go house-to-house asking for sweeties all right, but it's called "guising" (and the kids who do it are called "guisers"). This word comes from "disguise", as in the costume you wear.

Naturally they don't say trick-or-treat either. Instead, they tell you an awful joke or sing you a song. Here's a typical exchange.

ME: Oh my, what scary costumes.

GUISER: (absolute silence)


GUISER: Who's the coolest person at the hospital?

ME: I don't know. Who is the coolest person at the hospital?

GUISER: (absolute silence)

GUISER'S MUM: (whispering)

GUISER: The ultrasound man.

ME: Lovely. Here's a Mars bar.

Brits love Mars Bars, but they're not the same as American Mars Bars. They're more like a Three Musketeers.

Halloween, whether American or British, has no food traditions, beyond the obscene amount of candy we let the kids eat. One year my mother made pumpkin soup, but it was disgustingly bland. You can't use carving pumpkins for cooking, as I discovered again myself last year. They're bred for their looks, not their taste.

(Actually, mom did used to make a snack out of the pumpkin seeds, so that was kind of a cool tradition.)

But what the British have been celebrating much longer than Halloween is Guy Fawkes Night, also called Bonfire Night.

I have lived in the UK for 11 years and I still have absolutely no idea what this "holiday" is really about. Based on personal experience, it seems to be not one night but many many nights on which American exchange students light fireworks into the small hours of the morning. It lasts from about 15 October to whenever they finally run out of fireworks, some time around the second week of November.

I say "American" students because we Americans are all pretty much obsessed with fireworks, what with them being banned in most states.

To get serious for a moment, what I do know about Guy Fawkes Night was that Guy Fawkes planted some kegs of gunpowder in the basement of Parliament to try to kill James VI of Scotland, who had by then become James I of England (so early 1600s). This was called the Gunpowder Plot.

The plot failed and now we celebrate its failure by setting off fireworks and apparently also by lighting bonfires and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, though I've never seen this with my own eyes.

As I've said, students lighting fireworks every night for three or four weeks: that's my experience of Guy Fawkes Night.

One of the other things I know about this holiday, though, is that it is meant to be on 5 November. I know this because, whenever I have asked anyone about Guy Fawkes Night at any time in the past decade, their only response has been to quote the first line of a poem:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I've never met anyone who knows the rest of the poem.

Presumably, Guy Fawkes is meant to be a villain. On the other hand, all those Occupy London people were wearing Guy Fawkes masks, so maybe he's cool now.

Then again, they were wearing the masks because they saw them in V for Vendetta, so who the hell knows.

As you can probably tell, I don't really like Guy Fawkes Night. But which of these holidays do I like?

Well, from a food perspective, Day of the Dead wins hands down. The tamales alone would have done it for me; the sugar skulls and death bread is just the icing on the skeleton-shaped cake.

Unfortunately, none of my dead are buried in Scotland, which is just as well, as mid-Autumn is not the time of year you want to be spending the night in a graveyard. Not in this country, anyway.

And I'm not sure my dead relatives would understand that partying on their grave was a sign of respect.

But Halloween in Modern Britain leaves much to be desired. My last American Halloween wasn't much to write home about either, now that I think of it.

But there is hope. In the next few years, my daughter will start getting old enough to participate in Halloween properly, and we can throw a Halloween/Day of the Dead party for her and her friends.

I can learn to make the sugar skulls and the pan de muerto, we can have roasted pumpkin seeds and do all the traditional stuff like bobbing for apples (which is called dooking for apples in Scotland) and that game where you touch peeled grapes and say it's somebody's eyeballs.

And maybe I can even set up some Day of the Dead altars or ofrendas to my two grandfathers, through one of who I can trace some Mexican ancestry.

This is all assuming the world doesn't end this year, speaking of ancient Meso-American beliefs.