In the last few years, everyone has become at least passingly familiar with the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (or Día de Muertos). It’s an important tradition, not just because it’s a unique transfer of prehispanic traditions into post-colonisation culture and therefore very important to the Mexican identity, but because it’s an excellent way to deal with death and bereavement. It’s about celebrating with loved ones returned for a single day; death is a transformation, when something doesn’t work you change it (which is from this video, a pretty good explanation). Modern Halloween, by contrast, is all about superficial spooky things.
Halloween is in the process of invading Día de los Muertos. This is not a grass roots movement. Sure, there are kids who wander around looking for dulces or pesos, chanting the “la calavera tiene hambre” song, and the occasional university student costume party, but mostly people aren’t interested – they don’t see the point.
Large stores like Walmart and its recently-bought subsidiaries, for example, do see the point. The point is for them to sell a lot of crap, disposable merchandise. Selling disposable crap for four holidays at the same time (Méxican Independence Day, Octoberfest, Día de los Muertos and Christmas) isn’t enough, and they want to put in Halloween as well. I can see their interest – people by a lot of things for Día de los Muertos: Copal, papel picado, calaveras, marigold flowers, but most of the decorations for the ofrenda come from what was loved by the people being remembered. So purchases for Día de los Muertos pale in comparison to what people would spend to have a “good” Halloween.
So far this hasn’t been very successful, but that has never stopped them before. The latest attempt is to insidiously conflate Halloween and Día de los Muertos, such as with the decoration in this image.
This is La Catrina, one of the most famous calaveras in México. You’ll notice that for some reason she’s covered in spiders and holding a pumpkin. There’s a ghost, an owl in a sorcerer’s hat, and a witch, none of which have anything to do with Día de los Muertos or La Catrina. Obviously her skirt is in Halloween colours – they use orange black and purple in Día de los Muertos, for example with papel picado, but also different shades of yellow, pink, blue, green, white…pretty much every colour you can think of. The aim of this decoration is to get people to conflate the two holidays, to start thinking that rubber spiders and ghosts and other spooky things are part of Día de los Muertos, so they’ll by them. It’s a marketing ploy intended to trick Mexican into changing their shopping habits, and therefore they way they celebrate Día de los Muertos, over the long term. Walmart doesn’t care if it takes twenty years or more, if they have to wait for a new generation, as long as their sales will increase. And they know the best way to increase sales is to make people think they have to buy a bunch of disposable rubbish dressed up as celebration decorations every year.
Maybe you don’t think this is serious, maybe you think I’m being paranoid, maybe you think Mexicans would never fall for such an obvious ploy. My wife was just like you. When we saw this decoration at the restaurant where we had lunch (chiles en nogada for me, clemole for my wife) I told her what I thought about this, and she dismissed it. So I asked my six year old daughter what the decoration was for, and she said it was for Halloween, because of the spiders and witches and stuff. When we pointed out that Día de Muertos was written across the top, she said “it’s the same thing”. It took us a long time to explain to her that Día de Muertos and Halloween were completely different holidays, because they had already become intertwined in her mind despite the fact we never celebrate Halloween. Now my wife is more cautious about this.
This is an insidious ploy, and people need to be aware of it.
If you want to celebrate Halloween, go ahead. But don’t let Walmart and other large corporations trick you into turning one of the most important Mexican holidays, and one of the most psychologically useful holidays ever, into just another marketing opportunity with no real meaning behind it.