Remembering the Dead in The Book of Life

Not Built to Stay - courtesy flickr user Mike

Not Built to Stay – courtesy flickr user Mike

The Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, sure feels like it’s going mainstream these days. Disneyland even has its own celebration1, and now a major motion picture is taking it to an even broader audience.

Earlier this week, a couple of friends and I took the chance to see the new animated feature, The Book of Life. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, The Book of Life is a charming family movie set in a Mexican village on the fiesta of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when, as the movie explains, the spirits of the dead can pass between the worlds of the living and the dead, and families gather to remember their loved ones who have gone before them. Take a look at the trailer:

It’s a visually stunning film, full of the bright colors and imagery found throughout Mexico, and especially in the traditions of Dia de los Muertos, which has deep roots in indigenous history and culture. It’s also a wonderful reflection of the inculturation which shapes Catholic Mexico – the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is all over the place, and among the characters are a few sweet nuns and a Catholic priest who dons a Lucha Libre mask to join the fight against the movie’s villain. In The Book of Life, ancient customs and Catholic culture walk side-by-side.

Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican celebration that coincides with the Christian feast of All Souls Day. In the United States, that means it also coincides with Halloween. In the last few days, Halloween has been coming up in the news, as it does just about every year around this time. There’s usually someone saying “Christians shouldn’t celebrate Halloween because of its pagan origins” – which just happened in a New Jersey school district. Although this year, there’s a twist on that: actor-turned-Evangelical-activist Kirk Cameron has declared his belief that in fact Halloween is a deeply Christian holiday:

“The real origins have a lot to do with All Saints Day and All Hallows Eve,” the actor told The Christian Post. “If you go back to old church calendars, especially Catholic calendars, they recognize the holiday All Saints Day, with All Hallows Eve the day before, when they would remember the dead. That’s all tied in to Halloween.”

Other voices have gone on record rebutting this, reminding people that Halloween has roots in Celtic tradition around Samhain. It’s a seesaw argument that never really seems to go anywhere – Halloween is pagan, Halloween is Christian, up and down and back and forth.

But really, the story is that Christian and pagan traditions are both responding to something deeper: Halloween isn’t just a covered-up Christian holiday, and All Souls Day isn’t the ultimate root of the festivals we celebrate at the end of every October – if anything, we might argue that it’s the most inculturated of all Christian feasts. Just about every culture around the world has a way of honoring the dead. Samhain in ancient Ireland, Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, the veneration of ancestors in China, and yes, the Feast of All Souls in Christian Europe. Our memories of our loved ones connect us to their lives. By remembering them, perhaps a part of them lives on within us — and we’re connected to one of the most universal of all human experiences.

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Not Built to Stay image courtesy flickr user Mike, found here.

  1. They also have a Three Kings Day celebration!

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