Autumnal Skull (2018)

This Halloween decoration reflects the Mexican tradition of decorated skulls associated with Día de Muertos, the three-day “Day of the Dead” celebration that begins on 31 October. But this skull is surrounded with North American symbols of autumn and Halloween rather than the marigold petals and colored paper associated with Día de Muertos.

Before the Spanish conquest, Aztecs in what is now southern Mexico feted Mictecacihuatl, their goddess of the underworld, for an entire month in the late summer. The Spanish conquistadors had a mandate from their king to eradicate the indigenous cultures of his New World territories. But Catholic clergy often found rededicating traditional festivals to Catholic saints more practical than suppressing them. The closest corresponding Christian tradition was called Allhallowtide or Hallowmass in English. It was a three-day observance comprising All Hallows’ Eve (31 October), All Saints’ Day (1 November), and All Souls’ Day (2 November), respectively honoring martyrs, saints, and other departed faithful Christians. The month-long festival of Mictecacihuatl was thus converted into a three-day fiesta honoring the dead, beginning on 31 October. Originally confined to the former Aztec region in the southern part of the country, Día de Muertos became a national observance throughout Mexico in the 20th century.

The Christian Allhallowtide survives as our Halloween, a contraction of “[All] Hallow[s’] E[v]en[ing].” In the United States, Halloween now seems to last for three months, beginning in early August when the “pop-up” costume shops start appearing in shopping malls, and has more to do with commerce than with Christianity or honoring the dead. And of course, Allhallowtide itself was most likely a Christianization of the Celtic Samhain (pronounced “Sau-win”), which marked the midpoint of the autumn season, the end of the harvest, and the coming of winter darkness. Celts celebrated Samhain with bonfires and feasts. As Kohelet the Preacher famously remarked some 2,300 years ago, “there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

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