Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Day Of The Dead Which Isn't

There can be no more appropriate fiesta than that of 1 November. The day of the dead, or one of them anyway. It's a surprise fiesta for the unsuspecting Brit, for whom All Saints means a girl group. The Brits pour themselves another cup of black coffee, assuming they can find anywhere open to sell it, and "freeze the moment". For, from 1 November, time is frozen. It is suspended. In hibernation. The dead time.

Cemetery slabs and stones are swept and cleaned in advance of the laying of flowers on All Saints. While the homes of the dead are spruced up, the resorts, overnight acquiring their winter status as their own cemeteries, suddenly become inundated with the detritus of the dead time, the entrances to the grand hotel mausolea - their windows shuttered out of respect with whitewash - swept by the fallen leaves of the now fallen season.

Anyway, what's the deal with All Saints' Day and the whole Day of the Dead business? Well, All Saints isn't the Day of the Dead. It's tomorrow - All Souls' Day. Some of this is wrapped up in pagan times, but only some. The three days of Allhallowtide can only draw on Halloween from pagan days, when the Celts celebrated 1 November as Samhain, the start of the Celtic winter (Samhain - the lord of death - meant summer's end). The eve of Samhain - Halloween - was an occasion for sacrifice and allowing the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes: a link was forged between death of summer and human death. In Mallorca, summer may have officially died yesterday, but fortunately no one has suggested that it should be celebrated by having a sacrifice.

Once the Christians grabbed hold of Halloween, it was reconceived as All Saints' Eve but only, and crucially, once All Saints' Day was shifted from its original slot in May. It wasn't until the eleventh century that All Saints' Day - 1 November - was definitively decided upon.

All Souls' Day also used to be in the spring, at Whitsun time. This celebration for the souls of the dead who had been condemned to Purgatory was around from at least the sixth century. It, like All Saints, was transplanted to November, which is how they arrived at the three days of Allhallowtide.

The actual notion of the Day of the Dead would have been knocking around for some fair old while but its official adoption may well be fairly recent; if you can call the second half of the seventeenth century recent. In Barcelona in 1671 there was what is believed to be the first official reference. A document from the silversmiths' guild mentioned "Diada dels Morts", and it was All Souls' Day, i.e. tomorrow.

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