Halloween was not celebrated in Argentina when I was growing up. The only dress-up holiday we took part in was “Carnival,” which takes place in February, right in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.
There was nothing spooky about my girly ballerina tutu or clown costume, and there was no trick-or-treating involved. October would come and go without fanfare, though “All Saints’ Day” (November 1) and “All Souls’ Day” or “Dia de Todos los Muertos” (November 2) were both school holidays.
Being a child, I didn’t quite understand the significance of these dates, since the very word “soul” was unclear to me. In addition, I had not had any experience with death or dead people. A day dedicated to them only served to spook me out.
The faithful solemnly celebrated the day by visiting their dearly departed at the cemetery, some prayed, and most left flowers on the graves. It was all very serious and to me very sad. In fact, the whole matter made my skin crawl. I was young and impressionable.
Many years later, married with children, I moved to New York, and we all adopted Halloween with enormous enthusiasm. My kids adored the holiday and there were many exciting weeks of deciding what they wanted to dress as when it was time to trick-or-treat.
We got into the spirit of the character by sewing, gluing, and getting the kids outfitted in their favorite costumes. Alternatively, we went shopping when they needed to be a particular superhero and the costume was too hard for my precarious crafting skills. Along with other parents, we escorted a large group of trick-or-treaters around the neighborhood.
When we all felt they had collected enough sweets to last them a lifetime, everyone walked back to our house. I would change the scene and host Oktoberfest for the adults in the group. I would make a massive pot full of sauerkraut, all kinds of sausages, and potatoes.
There were pickles, wonderful German breads, and beer. It was nice to get out of the cold and relax with friends while the piles of candy were admired, traded, and happily eaten by the little ghouls and witches in the next room.
I always managed to put some of the bounty away for leaner times or to give away to anyone who would have them.
They were happy days that left many wonderful memories of the season. Now my children and grandchildren enjoy it full force, even those of them who live as far away as Singapore, where the tradition is alive and well.
Years later, my husband and I visited Mexico in October and stayed until the first week of November. Celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico was a revelation that changed my mind completely about the significance and celebration of the holiday.
I saw people preparing their altars honoring their ancestors and loved ones. All types of settings were lovingly laid out, from a simple wooden table with an embroidered cloth and pictures of the honorees and a candle, to elaborate and impressive installations with offerings that had pleased the deceased in life and were now offered in death.
A bottle of Mezcal for some, Tequila or beer for others, Pan de Muertos, a delightful bread eaten at this time of year and which has since become my favorite treat to devour in mid-October – I start early with things I enjoy.
It was wonderful to see what people placed on these altars. There was fruit and candy on some, a cigarette or cigar for the smokers, cards and letters were left for them to read and everyone in the family participated in making their thoughtful “ofrendas” (contributions).
The explosion of color pleased my eyes. Mexicans have a way with color which can turn a dark setting into light and joy in an instant. It was wonderful to watch the city come alive while celebrating the dead.
There were parties in cemeteries around town. People visiting their ancestors – and in my mind, celebrating their dead with song and laughter rather than with dread or sadness. An important lesson for the living.
The Mexican movie Coco (released three years ago) joyfully educates and delights us about this traditional holiday. I am grateful to my grandchildren for not only recommending it to me but also accompanying me to see this lovely and artful movie which I plan to see again in a couple of weeks.
On a visit to Thailand, I learned about Spirit Houses, lovely wood structures which hold within them the spirits of loved ones. I saw them everywhere, mostly in people’s gardens.
They usually contain some flowers, an offering, and lit incense which fills the air with sweetness. The Spirit House that I brought home has offered my dearly departed a place to hang out in my patio ever since.
As I write this, I am beginning to decorate my altar with all the significant things I feel should be there for my departed loved ones, and for me, as I remember each one. On the day of, I will have Pan de Muertos, a piece of fruit, and perhaps another favored delicacy.
I will also have pictures of my faithful pet companions and leave a treat for them to enjoy. As I prepare this special place for this special date, I have a heart full of gratitude for the roles that these people and animals played in my life and have a space in my heart and guaranteed accommodations in my Thai Spirit House. Thinking about them as I see their happy pictures fills my heart with love and wonderful memories.
Adopting these and other traditions from around the world when they resonate with my own beliefs and making them part of the many things that I can celebrate has enriched my life and the life of my family.
Have you embraced holidays from other cultures as your own? How do you celebrate those important dates on the calendar? Please share in the comments below!