“The indifference of the Mexican to death is nourished by his indifference to life.” — Octavio Paz, Nobel Prize winner
In 2017 Pixar premiered Coco, a movie centered around the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead (read TGC’s review). With the film’s funny punchlines, likable main character, and emphasis on the value of family, Disney introduced an ancient celebration to millions around the world.
Coco was a smashing success. It became the highest-grossing animated film of all time in Mexico, won two Oscars, and earned more than $800 million at the box office.
I watched the movie with interest. The film, to an extent, Disney-fies the celebration; it mixes elements of the supernatural with a melodramatic story, sentimental music, and, of course, a lot of color. Coco is a two-hour promotion for an annual event that has real spiritual implications for our friends and neighbors.
I’m a Mexican who grew up in an evangelical family in Mexico, where I still live. Every fall, Mexican Christians must consider how to respond to this celebration in their communities. Increasingly, the Day of the Dead is part of life in U.S. communities, too. Perhaps you have neighbors who will observe the Day of the Dead.
How should you think about this celebration?
On November 1 and 2, Mexicans welcome the spirits of the ancestors to the kingdom of the living, just for a short period of time. Families build altars at home with photographs, meals, or various things the deceased liked. In some regions family members bring food to the graves, for tradition holds that, on that particular night, the dead return to life and eat what they’ve been offered.
According to the traditional narrative taught in Mexico, the Day of the Dead arose from a syncretistic mix of two things: the Roman Catholic celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1, and the celebration of death practiced by pre-Hispanic cultures for hundreds of years around the same time of year.
Formerly, Mesoamerican civilizations worshiped death and celebrated the dead during an annual festival. In the time of the Spanish conquista, Roman Catholicism was imposed on native people through a variety of means, such as mixing Christian and pagan traditions. And so the Day of the Dead was born. Mexicans have observed this modern version of the holiday since the 16th century.
When Death Is Funny
Mexican culture seeks to laugh at what it finds frightening. The Day of the Dead is complex—it’s a holiday to remember dead loved ones and, for some, an invitation for the dead to return to the land of the living. But, rather than marking this occasion with tears or trembling, Mexicans celebrate with flowers, food, clothes, music, and, of course, colorful skeletons made of candy, wood, and ceramic.
One popular tradition is to compose literary calaveras, rhymes about how an individual died or might die. The sarcastic, funny rhymes are so popular they get published in newspapers. For those who aren’t Mexican, this practice may sound morbid. Mexicans, however, laugh at what frightens us. It’s part of our culture. And what can scare us more than death?
Those who reject Jesus have no reason to laugh.
In the end, though, death is not funny. And those who reject Jesus have no reason to laugh. True Christians don’t have a trivial attitude toward death, and acknowledging its sober character gives us a chance to point to its conqueror. Death has been conquered—not by us, not by our offerings, not by our deeds, not even by our laughter in its face, but by the One who suffered its sting in our place (1 Cor. 15:55–57).
Serious Theology Behind the Laughs
Interestingly, the Mexican government has encouraged celebrating the Day of the Dead over Halloween, since Halloween is considered an Anglo-Saxon celebration. In many parts of Mexico, especially in cities, the Day of the Dead is rapidly becoming secularized. Yet in much of rural Mexico—which represents the majority of the country—it is still a vital celebration based on deep religious beliefs.
Those beliefs, of course, have serious theological problems. In the Old Testament, invoking the dead was a pagan practice abominable to God:
There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. (Deut. 18:10–12)
You might think most of those who practice this holiday don’t believe, in reality, that their ancestors’ spirits will return to the altar to take a bite out of the offering. But you would be surprised. Many Mexicans believe that something happens on this day, that some kind of communication with the dead does takes place.
In some parts of the world, the Day of the Dead may seem like a harmless holiday—a chance to buy colorful decorations, to eat Mexican food, or to join neighbors in their family traditions. But Christians should be aware that behind the masks and the laughs lay serious spiritual problems.
Should Christians Participate?
Mexico is a deeply religious, superstitious, and animistic country. (Interestingly, in China—another country that practices ancestor veneration—Coco was incredibly popular, even more than in the States.) This is why the vast majority of the Mexican evangelicals I know do not participate in the holiday or will refrain from some of the more traditional practices, such as making an altar or bringing food to the graves.
The vast majority of the Mexican evangelicals I know do not participate in the holiday, or will refrain from some of the more traditional practices.
No doubt, this celebration is changing quickly, and it will probably in time lose its occultist connotations. Nevertheless, this Mexican tradition still makes a spiritual claim: we ought to celebrate death, and we can communicate with the dead.
When I was young, my family was the only evangelical family in the neighborhood. We were the only ones who didn’t celebrate Mass, who didn’t worship the saints, who didn’t believe that making a pilgrimage on our knees would purge us of sin, and who didn’t celebrate the Day of the Dead. In Hispanic countries, being an evangelical was to be truly Protestant: to protest certain practices we believed had no biblical basis.
Given the holiday’s false spiritual claims, all the evangelicals I know in rural areas of Mexico—where this celebration is taken most seriously—strongly oppose participation. Some refuse to participate even under tremendous social pressure, since not celebrating the town festivals can mean social ostracism. In certain cases, those Christians may even be expelled from the pueblo (town).
Now, for Christians outside of Mexico, participating in the Day of the Dead may seem like a choice with few obvious consequences. A single night of costumes and feasting—or not. But we should remember that, for our brothers and sisters in rural Mexican communities, the choice to abstain from this celebration is a matter of conscience with serious implications. We should not thoughtlessly adopt a pagan practice that costs them so much.
True Hope for Life
The more secular the Day of the Dead becomes, the more its spiritual focus will change. Perhaps some aspects can even be redeemed.
But the hope of the deceased Christian is not being welcomed again to the kingdom of the living. Our hope is living forever in the kingdom of the Living One: safe in him who is alive forevermore, and who alone holds the keys of Death and Hades (Rev. 1:18; 22:5).