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The origins of today’s feast are rooted in Christian beliefs and ancient pagan rituals.
The church has always encouraged prayer for the dead from the earliest times as an act of Christian charity. “If we had no care for the dead,” Augustine noted, “we would not be in the habit of praying for them.”
Even before Christianity took hold in Europe, pagan celebrations of the dead also took place in the fall, and consisted of bonfires, dancing and feasting. A melding of the two belief systems would occur over time.
It was St. Odilo, the abbot of Cluny, who in the 11th century decreed that all of the Cluniac monasteries offer special prayers and sing the Office for the Dead on Nov. 2. As the custom spread, it gained recognition by the church and was officially adopted as a Catholic holiday. The mixture of pagan and Christian customs for the holiday are evident in many cultures.
In medieval Spain, people would bring wine and pan de ánimas (spirit bread) to the graves of their loved ones on All Souls Day; they would also cover graves with flowers and light candles to illuminate the dead souls’ way back to their homes on Earth.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores brought such traditions with them to the New World. In Mexico these beliefs and those of the indigenous peoples would meld into “El Dia de los Muertos” that is, “The Day of the Dead.” Although popular opinion equates that feast to Halloween, they are quite different, though may have some common customs.
On the Day of the Dead, it’s believed that the border between the spirit world and the real-world dissolve. During this brief period, the souls of the dead awaken and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance and play music with their loved ones. In turn, the living family members treat the deceased as honored guests in their celebrations and leave the deceased’s favorite foods and other offerings at gravesites or on the ofrendas built in their homes. Ofrendas can be decorated with candles, bright marigolds called cempasuchil and red cock’s combs alongside food like stacks of tortillas and fruit. The celebration is a way for the people to feel still close to their beloved departed.
In general, the feast of All Souls is a day to remember our loved ones and forebears with affection and Christian unity. We celebrate our mutual affection, their accomplishments, their life lessons imparted to us, their spiritual gifts that they have left us and pray for their heavenly reward.