Did Undas originate from ancient Aztec beliefs?

I’m quite sure media started to call the Filipino feast of trooping to the cemeteries to honor their departed on November 1 as Undas only in the past several years.

I never heard the term used in our family. Instead, that must-observe ritual was called Todos los Santos or even Araw ng mga Patay. I had been puzzled though why the cemetery-going day was on Todos los Santos, or All Saints Day. Logically, we should be honoring our dead on November 2, All Souls Day, officially called by the Catholic Church as “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed”.

I thought I merely didn’t know much of the Filipino language so that “Undas” was unfamiliar to me. However, even the legal scholar Fr. Joaquin Bernas wrote in his column a year ago that he was also baffled by the term, but that even his colleagues who were either steeped in Tagalog or Spanish couldn’t explain its origins. Filipino dictionaries both printed and online just translate “Undas” as “All Saints’ Day.”

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has a website, undasonline.com devoted to the feast, but nowhere is there an explanation why on earth (or heaven) we use the term.

I found no scholarly explanation of the term, but only blogs merely speculating on its etymology. One blogger pointed out that “undas” sounds close to the Spanish “onda” which means “wave.” But what does “wave” have anything to do with honoring the dead?

Another thought it was derived from the Spanish “honra,” which he claimed means “to respect,” thus Undas is the day we pay our respects to the dead. I doubt that very much, as I still remember, from my college Spanish classes that “to respect” is of course “respetar.” A long-running tourism show “Tipong Pinoy” in its edition the other night claimed “undas” originated form the Spanish term “Hondras de Funebre.” “Funebre” is certainly funeral in English, but I can’t find any Spanish word “hondras.”

Ofrendas (offering) on Filipinos’ Undas, left, on Mexicans’ El Dia de los Muertes

Ofrendas (offering) on Filipinos’ Undas, left, on Mexicans’ El Dia de los Muertes

So without any acceptable explanation for “undas,” I propose one. I was led to my thesis by the fact that in southern Luzon, especially in Batangas, the term is not “undas” but “undras.”

I suspect somebody in media just had a bright idea that instead of the “Araw ng mga Patay” or All Souls Day, the shorter Batangueno term be used, undras, claiming it was used all over the country, and would obviously be easier to put in headlines or say in TV news. Somehow this was further shortened to undas. Nobody questioned the term, so it caught on that everyone now uses the word.

There could be an explanation how “undras” emerged. Words in one language are known to morph to become another word in another tongue sounding the same, and with the same basic meaning, but with some changes. A classic example of this is “Zeus” which is the name of the most powerful god in the ancient Greek pantheon. The word though evolved into the Latin “Deus,” to the Spanish Dios, and then Filipino Diyos,  all of which mean no longer just the most powerful god, but the only God. The Filipino language has over 5,000 such “loanwords” from Spanish, from abante (avante) to yelo (hielo).

Is there a Spanish word associated or linked with the custom of commemorating the dead on November 1 that sounds like undas or undras?

Yes there is, in fact a word at the center of that festival: “ofrenda,” plural “ofrendas” which translates to “offerings”, “Ofrendas,” when quickly spoken, does sound like “Undras.”

The term refers to the central duty of believers in Mexico on their “Undas” which they call Dia de los Muertos celebrated also on November 1. This is to construct a kind of mini-altar, either in their homes or in the cemetery, to honor their departed loved ones.

While we don’t use the term ofrendas, creating them is what we also do when we troop to the cemeteries on November 1. The rich in their family mausoleums set up candles, flowers, the dead’s huge elaborately-framed photos, and the departed’s favorite food and in even in some cases I’ve have seen, the deceased’s favorite drink, whether it is beer or Scotch whiskey. Most however create their simpler ofrendas of lighted candles and flower arrangements on their departed’s tombstones.

Contrary to what most people think, Undas wasn’t a creation of Catholicism nor is it a practice among Catholics all over the world. Only Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil—and in less-intense forms, a few Latin American countries—celebrate the Day of the Dead in the way we know it, that is, one day of the year when everyone goes to the cemetery to honor their dead. Our Undas was an import from Hispanic Mexico, the reproduction here of its El Dia de los Muertos.

This Day of the Dead actually needs much explaining.

Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter in the privacy of their homes with their families. Why would people commemorate their dead who obviously passed away at different days of the year on one particular day when everyone does so, and undertake this in one crowded place with strangers—crowds—all around them, thus diminishing the solemnity of commemorating their loved ones?

The absurdity of the practice has become so obvious as our population has swelled, more and more die, so more and more people visit their dear departed  in cemeteries which obviously have not grown in size, creating mammoth crowds in these places on November 1 that risk people’ safety.

The festival reminds me of obviously irrational and dangerous religious practices, mostly in India, when hundreds of thousands of believers congregate to a single purportedly holy place on a particular day, in not a few cases resulting in a bridge collapsing, a terrorist bomb exploding, or a stampede breaking out, killing hundreds of pilgrims.

The explanation is that El Dia de los Muertos—and its version in our country—was based on the ancient pre-Hispanic Aztec civilization’s two major feasts Miccailhuitontili (“Feast of the Little Dead Ones”) and Miccailhuitl (“Feast of the Adult Dead”) that come one after another, as All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day do.

The Aztec belief was that on those days, the dead reunite not only with their family but also with the community in a festival of eating and drinking of the kind they enjoyed in life. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, the celebration continues outside the cemeteries to the town center to mardi-gras kind of parties.

(This of course is totally different from the Catholic belief that when a person dies, his soul is teleported to heaven, purgatory, or hell, to return his re-assembled body in a Resurrection of the Body day eons from now. That is, the soul certainly doesn’t go partying once a year with the living.)

When the Spanish conquered Central America they found these festivals of the dead so important to the indigenous peoples that rather than banning them, their friars hi-jacked these and transformed them into Catholicism’s All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day holidays.

The Spanish colonized us after Mexico, and believing that the natives here had similar Aztec beliefs, they simply repeated what they did in Mexico and instituted the practice of honoring the dead on Todos los Santos. Friars who were first stationed in Mexico and then transferred here explained the ritual to the natives as the day when they should be creating ofrendas for their dead. To the Batanguenos’ ears, “ofrendas” was “undras”.

That our Undas originated form the Aztec idea of partying with the dead explains the festive atmosphere on that day in our cemeteries. The food and drinks put on the departed’s grave, the buffet tables, the all-night drinking, mahjong games, and karaoke singing around the graves during Todos los Santos are really not aberrations of our commemoration of the dead.   Such partying of the living with the dead is the essence of the Day of the Dead.