If you consider yourself a Christian, but even if you don’t, this article will present a position on whether or not Christians should celebrate Día de los Muertos. This holiday is expanding across the globe, so you’ll eventually need to know where you stand.
I was recently asked if was going to raise my daughter to celebrate Día de los Muertos, and up until that moment, I had never thought about it. It is probably due to my lack of awareness and knowledge of this traditional Mexican holiday. I grew up, went off to college, got married, but only until after my daughter was born did I become aware of my ignorance. My wife, who grew up in a Latino community in southern California, got to witness this holiday from friends and their families. She had to school me on a holiday that is directly connected to my ancestors.
The whole purpose of this month-long series on Día de los Muertos is two-fold: educate others and educate myself. I am not an expert. I am learning and attempting to pass on helpful information.
Maybe you’ve never thought about this holiday much, or at all, but it’s worth your time. The Latin American population loves this 2,500-year-old holiday, so its significance cannot be understated this time of year. You should get to know your neighbors, which include Latinos and Mexicans, so you should get to know the holiday’s traditions, beliefs, and its origins.
Let’s get it.
Altars and Offerings
The first historical tradition is to create/build an altar in honor of each deceased family member. These altars can vary in size, but the most common altars are multi-level to allow for more decorations and offerings. An important physical characteristic is that every altar should be unique and colorful, and each altar can be decorated to stick out in whatever location is chosen. The family place altars in their house, in a public space, or next to the grave of the deceased.
The second tradition is that the family gives offerings, and these offerings are the key elements of the altars. The offerings consist of the relative’s favorite foods, favorite items, Mexican marigolds, candles, and colorful sugar skulls. The number and placement of the offerings are decided as a family event prior to the holiday.
The Bible speaks about altars in two distinct ways in the Old Testament: built for God and built to other gods. When altars were built for Yahweh (YHWH) it was seen as an act of righteous worship. Moses built an altar after God gave him instruction, and praised God for defending them against enemies (Exodus 17:14-15).
The other altars built were in honor of other gods, which God judges and tells the Israelites is sin. When Elijah proclaimed that the altar built by the other “prophets,” God sends a very clear message of His displeasure of their sin. God sent down fire and destroyed the altar and all their offerings to the other god, Baal (1 Kings 18: 38-39). God was clear: He alone is God and demands true worship and rejection of anything not worthy of worship (other gods).
Idolatry is the worship, faith placed in, of anything as it were God. An example from today is the idol of yourself. People say that the problem is that we don’t love ourselves enough but that is a huge lie. Placing yourself, your desires, your preferences, your plans above all other things can only be described as pride. Paul states that people have chosen the worship of things instead of God:
“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.”
Día de los Muertos is celebrated over three days (October 31-November 2), and each day has a distinct emphasis: Oct. 21: Children, Nov. 1: Adults, Nov. 2: Visiting graves. Each day is spent encouraging souls to return to Earth. These souls return through the family’s prayers, storytelling, and dancing. To summarize: deceased families return to Earth to spend time with their loved ones through their celebrations and following traditional practices.
To clarify, this is not some historical fact that has faded over time. The belief that through prayers to Mictēcacihuātl, the goddess of the afterlife., and proper celebration tradition, the souls of deceased loved ones visit them. It is not just a celebration for its own sake; the family celebrates so that they can spend time with the dead. Souls move back-and-forth between the afterlife and Earth. Souls in the afterlife are transient.
The Christian belief is that the afterlife is eternal. Simply defined, eternal means having an unending duration, permanent placement. If the souls of human beings came back, or even had the ability to come back, it would not be considered “eternal.”
This belief is all throughout the Bible, and it has been put in many different contexts to clearly describe eternity. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus said this:
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Notice there are only two options: eternal punishment and eternal life.Jesus directly speaks to the duration of our afterlife. We can either be in punishment or life, but both options have an infinite duration.
Heresy might be strong, cringe-worthy word, but it just means a belief that contradicts traditional doctrine. Día de los Muertos belief of the afterlife being transient (temporary, flexible) contradicts the Bible’s statement that the afterlife is eternal (permanent, unchanging).
Are Pagan Roots a Deal-Breaker?
Día de los Muertos is estimated to be 2,500-3,300 years old, and it originated from the indigenous people in the central and southern Mexico. The origins include a dedication and prayers to a goddess, Mictēcacihuātl (“Lady of the Dead”). She was believed to be the Queen of Mictlan (the afterlife). In the indigenous religion, Mictēcacihuātl is directly involved with a multitude of other gods and goddesses – Mictlāntēcutli, her husband, Lord of Mictlan), Cihuacoatl (motherhood, fertility), and many others.
The History of the holiday is rooted in polytheistic religion, and, for this specific holiday, it demands prayer to one goddess for their deceased loved ones. Polytheism continues to be a significant part of Día de los Muertos, even with the little Catholic influence today.
The Big Question
Before any holiday should be thrown out as unacceptable, I believe it’s important to consider a big question:
“To what extent does something’s evolution from pagan roots entail that its present practice is tainted?” – Justin Holcomb
One example is Halloween (which I’ll discuss more next week) and how it has evolved in its present practices and beliefs. There are questionable pagan roots in Halloween, but the practices and beliefs do not reflect the possible pagan roots. Halloween is now about candy and costumes with little-to-no pagan practices.
Día de los Muertos has all original practices (altars, offerings), beliefs (the afterlife is not eternal), and the holiday has not evolved away from its pagan roots enough to constitute the freedom to celebrate without compromising Christian doctrine.
Receive, Reject, or Redeem?
The reasons why I would reject the celebration for Christians are the following:
- Building altars and giving offerings to gods is idolatry.
- Believing the afterlife is transient and not eternal is heresy.
- The evolution is not enough to stray away from outright sin.
This is not always the case with other holidays or practices, but if any Christian is required to commit idolatry and believe heresy to celebrate properly, then you must reject it.
How to “Reject”
There are three helpful and loving ways to reject Día de los Muertos:
- Learn More – Don’t settle for this post for all your knowledge. Go out and learn more!
- Get to Know People – If you have friends or family that celebrate this holiday, that’s great! But, I’m guessing most people aren’t deeply involved in many Latino circles. Get out of your comfort zone and get to know more participants in Día de los Muertos. Love them, be their friend, and listen to their beliefs on the holiday.
- Stand Firm – Be confident and courageous with what you believe. Hold firm to your beliefs while you lovingly speak into this holiday. If you stand firm with no love, that’s not helpful or godly.
Jacob Luis Gonzales