CONTRARY to what most people think, the way we practice All Souls’ Day, which has come to be called “Undas” only in recent years, 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 people go to the cemetery to honor their dead. Todos los Santos to us, this was an import from Hispanic Mexico, the reproduction here of its El Dia de los Muertos.
Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter in the privacy of their homes with their families. Why would they 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’s safety.
The festival reminds me of obviously irrational and dangerous religious practices, mostly in India, when hundreds of thousands of believers congregate in 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.
El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and Latin America — 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 families 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, this pre-Hispanic celebration continues outside the cemeteries to the town center in mardi gras kind of parties. Undas, in short, is the partying of the dead.
(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 reassembled body in a Resurrection 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 All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day holidays, with the dates for these those, which Pope Gregory 3rd (731 to 741) determined for venerating the saints, and was made an obligation throughout the Frankish Empire by Louis the Pious in 835.
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 our 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 giving ofrendas (offerings in Spanish) for the saints and for their dead. To the Batangueños’ ears, ofrendas sounded like undras, and so it has become “undas,” for some reason, only in recent years.
That our Undas originated from 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 in the mausoleums of the rich, 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.
Indeed, many aspects of our culture that we think were from Spain are in fact from Nueva España (Spain’s colonial state that included Mexico), practices of the Aztecs disguised as Spanish Catholic rituals.
Many Filipinos, especially the old elite, bask in the thought that our culture was hugely influenced by Spain. The reality really is that many of the features of our society and culture were created by Spanish colonists coming from Mexico, and failing in finding riches there, moved to this edge of the then known world, dreaming to find wealth to be grabbed in China.