Monday, November 05, 2007

Is Dia de los Muertos a Catholic Holiday?

This past weekend I had the opportunity of attending a parish with a large Hispanic population. This was a rather old Church which still had a few side altars. Being that it was the beginning of November, one of the side altars was decked out with all the trappings of the Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") celebrations. The old altar (dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus) was covered with a multitude of macabre looking skulls, each made of a different material, some brightly colored but many white. There was a large, life size coffin covered in flowers and pictures of many of the deceased of the parish. Most striking were two figures that I can only describe as grim reapers: skeletal creatures draped in black cloaks holding little scythes that were most likely purchased right from Halloween USA. A member of the parish told us how is was a beautiful Hispanic tradition and said that it was their way of celebrating All Souls' Day.

But is this really a Catholic holiday? I mean, I understand it is often put forward as a Catholic holiday. The secular press and liberal Catholic press certainly like trumpeting this holiday about as an example of "inculturation." But really, is this a Catholic holiday?

I believe, and have always believed, that this holiday is highly suspect. First of all, it is very well known and attested that this was originally an Aztec holiday that was celebrated in one form or another for at least a thousand years before the coming of the Spaniards. It's purpose was to honor the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl who in Aztec mythology was sacrificed as as infant. This historical pedigree is well attested, which means unlike similar accusations of the pagan origin of All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos is most certainly pagan in nature.

Does that automatically mean it cannot be Christianized? Of course not; we have Christianized many customs that were originally pagan in character. But what is often forgotten is that just because some things can be Christianized does not mean everything can be. Is there a way to Christianize the fascination with the emblems of death that permeate this festival?

Furthermore, if we are going to proclaim a custom Christianized, it would be nice if it was actually Christianized to some degree. In the case of the Day of the Dead, nothing has been Christianized about it except the fact that it is celebrated around the same time as All Souls' Day. Other than that, it still manifests all the beliefs and trappings of the demonically inspired Aztec culture. You cannot just lop off the name of Mictecacihuatl and proclaim the holiday sufficiently Christianized. Remember, this was not simply "their way" of finding the true God; the gods of the nations are demons, as the Scriptures say (Deut. 37:12, Ps. 96:5) and pagan rituals can in no way be permitted as parts of Christian worship.

Yes, the Church has Christianized pagan practices in the past. "Gold from Egypt", as St. Augustine would say. But when the Church does Christianize something pagan, the whole pagan essence of the ritual is removed and replaced by Catholic truth. In the case of Day of the Dead, we have only the name changing while the substance remains pagan Aztec.

In what sense does the pagan substance remain? The most problematic in the celebration of the Day of the Dead is the construction of altars and sacrifices offered to the deceased. Anybody who knows Catholic theology understands that (a) an altar can indeed be dedicated to a saint, but not to the souls in Purgatory or the souls of departed loved ones (b) even if an altar is dedicated to a saint, the sacrifice is always offered to God, and God can apply the merits of the sacrifice to the souls in Purgatory. Never, ever do we offer sacrifices to our departed loved ones. That would be idolatry.

Day of the Dead altar in Oaxaca, Mexico
Yet this is exactly what happens on the Day of the Dead. Food, incense and offerings are made on altars to the souls of the dead. Through this (and through the ritual consumption of a sugar skull), the celebrants believe they are having communion with the dead. Unmentioned is any question as to whether or not the dead are among the blessed or not; there is no distinction between the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering; the communion is simply with "the dead," irrespective of their final destiny. Food and drink are offered to the dead with the most antiquated pagan understanding that the souls of the dead consume this offering.
Day of the Dead skulls; eating of these sugar skulls is believed to bring about a real communion with the dead

This is another reason why I am very skeptical about the supposed future of the Church in Latin America. The fact that most Catholics in the world are Hispanic does not in any way fill me with joy, because I believe that the level of catechesis and cultural penetration of the Gospel in those countries is very negligible. Sure, after England, France, etc. were converted, there was a period when pagan customs were still being practiced. But there was a concerted effort to Christianize them and to root out the elements that were too obviously anti-Christian. But in this case, we have the Aztec origins of the ceremonies being publicly celebrated and the Christian symbolism being pushed aside.

I urge you all to research the origins and celebration of this sacrilege and speak out against it whenever you can.

More on the Church in Latin America: Why I have little hope for the supposed "Hispanic future" of the Church


Anonymous said...

you do know this is the 21st century right? is this ritual harming you? is it making you believe any less in your faith? if your answer is no, then take a chill pill on the whole dogma thing....please?

Boniface said...

Yes, this holiday is harming me because by falsely posing as Catholic it scandalizes my Catholic sensibilities.

MexicanCatholic said...

boy, you must be really unhappy about the whole Pope Francis thing.

in the US, Christmas for some self-professed Catholics is about shopping, Santa Claus, and having a decadent meal with the family. does that mean that Christmas is a pagan holiday and US Catholicism is the whore of Babylon? surely not! you cannot judge a custom observed solemnly by many by the malpractice of a few. perhaps you should spend more time conversing with devout Mexican Catholics (Americans don't have a monopoly on the Faith, right?) than judging a culture based on their "otherness" and your own preconceived notions.

with apologies but in earnest, these "Catholic sensiblities" you speak of sound more like ignorance in this case.

Anthony Garcia said...

Can you refute the origins as laid out in this article? Just curious.

Or do you admit that this is a pagan holiday, and should not pose as a catholic holiday.

Anne Guerrero said...

This tradition is harmful to Catholic and biblical Truth. God says to not put any God's before him. To liter an altar with skulls should be a sacrilege if it is not. We are supposed to pray for souls in purgatory but we are not supposed to entertain them with food and drink. We are living in Christ even the souls in purgatory. To entertain the dead is to invite demons. The devil masquerades as an angel of light.

Anne Guerrero said...

This tradition is harmful to Catholic and biblical Truth. God says to not put any God's before him. To liter an altar with skulls should be a sacrilege if it is not. We are supposed to pray for souls in purgatory but we are not supposed to entertain them with food and drink. We are living in Christ even the souls in purgatory. To entertain the dead is to invite demons. The devil masquerades as an angel of light.

Juan Yaotl Torres said...

Im a proud Aztec... Pagan, sure... Yet am in agreement as to it being a stolen holiday... What i find interesting is how Catholics view us. I say to each their own. I wont worship a middle eastern god. said...

For a faithful Roman Catholic site, this certainly attracts many who have little to no interest in the Catholic faith. I find everything about Day of the Dead offensive to Christian thought and practice. The decorated skeletons are what I associate with the culture of death (sadly, the current culture of our once great USA). I have a great devotion to the Poor Holy Souls of Purgatory, as should all Christians. We must of course be grateful to our parents and other family who've passed to the next life, by praying for their souls, by prayers of thanksgiving for all they did for us, etc. But the only images I've seen of Day of the Dead are gruesome, not holy. There are so many beautiful CATHOLIC traditions from Mexico, but this pagan tradition is not one of them. There are so many great SAINTS from Mexico, we should emulate them in our lives, to become ever closer to Christ our Savior, King of Eternal Glory! Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us! St. Juan Diego, pray for us!

Unknown said...

Oh gosh! Here we go again with the it doesn't hurt you response!!!! Sad little that you know everyones actions whether seen or unseen to your or related or not to you affect you!!!!

Rob Ferguson said...

What this requires is people, like yourself, giving course corrections. It is off track in many places as is the very celebration of the Eucharistic Feast every Sunday. I think emphasizing what is right and eliminating what is wrong is the best anyone can do...same with Advent, Christmas, Easter etc. We are not battling flesh and blood but are poised to strike and shine light on the powers of darkness. This is why I believe the truth being shared (and often...daily) in all aspects of life is the very breath of the Holy Spirit to fan the flames of truth and love in the midst of the dying world. I teach my family about pitfalls around festivals like this, yes, but I also try to give them any elements of truth on display so they can become more adept at discerning the true from the false elements themselves. ��"They say Santa I say Sanctus...let's not call the whole thing off." You have here a close parallel to Saint Paul as we are to live in a pagan culture. I keep thinking of ways to point to God and where he shines through the darkness. If only the religious spirit behind the festivals could be aimed in the right direction!

Cherie said...

Thank you for this article, Fr. Nix. I have long uncomfortably wondered about this festival, but you are the first Catholic that I have heard speak out against it.

Antonio F. said...

Found your article a good one; focused and charitable. I am always amazed at the responses from the oddest persons.
The good thing is that you certainly struck a chord with a variety of readers.

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that many people here feel offended by Dia de Muertos because it's not properly Christian... while the actual event has existed for far longer than Christianity itself, and the Spaniards forced the Catholic aspects on the indiginous people. So if you have any compaints, look to your own church.

Boniface said...

The only reason I care about the pagan elements is because it is masquerading as Catholic. If you want to have all the pagan stuff fine. Then don’t pretend it’s Catholic.