Students from the University of Central Arkansas’ Department of Anthropology and Museum Studies put together an exhibit at the Faulkner County Library that explores how different cultures respond to death, and how these traditions created the modern holiday Halloween and the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead.
Jason Smith, geography major, anthropology minor explored how All Souls’ Day went from being a medieval Roman Catholic tradition of helping souls in purgatory cross into heaven, to the holiday we know as Halloween today.
"The reason people are so against Halloween are ignorant of its history to be honest with you," Smith said. "They don’t understand where it came from and where it’s been. You can consider yourself a traditionalist, as far as being a Christian, but if you look back you’re talking about something that’s taken place for centuries."
In the 20s and 30s, All Souls’ Day remained an adult holiday focused on the church, he said. It was not until the 50s that the trick or treating element was introduced and it became more of a commercialized holiday, misunderstood by some.
After the Protestant Reformation, the idea of purgatory was replaced with the idea that all souls either went to Heaven or Hell and that any apparent appearance of a ghost or spirit was not a loved one, but a manifestation sent from the Devil, said Alison Hall, anthropology and museum studies professor.
"All spirits you think you might see are a manifestation of the devil, and that’s why it seems like this is an anti-Christian holiday," she said.
Tony Martin, history major, anthropology minor, explored the origins of Samhian, the Celtic precursor to Halloween. The Irish tradition marks the new year as one of four fire festivals practiced by Celts in ancient times.
It marked the point in Celtic year where they believed the veil between the worlds of the living and their afterlife grew thinnest and spirits could cross over to wander around in the word of the living, Martin explained.
"It was both a celebration and time of dread because just as you could be visited by a loved one, you could just as easily be visited by a vengeful spirit, so they carved masks and disguised themselves," he said.
Many believe modern day costumes stem from this tradition.
Traditional masks that were meant to represent evil or used to scare off the dead have become commercialized costumes with no meaning, said Morgan Rogers, history major, anthropology minor.
"Because of the commercialization we might not understand the cultural significance of why we’re doing it," she said, "but from these different cultures we get all of these ideas and mesh them together and that’s what Halloween really is."
The Celts were also the first to carve jack-o’-lanterns. The first jack-o’-lanterns were carved from beets and turnips in an attempt to scare away unwelcome spirits.
This time of year was seen as a celebration when families could be with spirits of loved ones who had passed away.
"Ancestor worship is a connecting thread between many ancient cultures," Smith said. "It really gives you an idea of the sense of humanity, history and culture, and how it can really be an example of not just our differences but our similarities."
Héctor Garcia, an art historian from Mexico, said Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead originated from the agricultural cycles of ancient Latin America.
The tradition is a ceremony to celebrate the two seasons for harvesting - the rain and dry seasons, he explained. "At the beginning of the farming season, the seeds are blessed. After harvesting, farmers give thanks for their bounty."
The traditional alters of ancient Mexico were a medium the ancient cultures utilized to communicate with the dead and their deities.
The food that was shared with the visiting dead was a ritual to ask for rain for the following year, Garcia said.
"The alive ask for help from the dead because the dead are seen as a medium between the alive and the deities," he said.
Today’s alter pieces are arranged ritualistically with three planes. The lower plate is where incense burners and tapestries are placed. The middle plane is made up of an assortment of fruits and foods. And the top plane consists of things enjoyed by the dead while they were alive.
In modern times, beer, cigarettes and traditional meals have been placed on the top tier, Garcia said. As well as portraits of saints and the loved ones who have passed.
Day of the Dead begins Nov. 1 when the children who have passed come back to the land of the living and continues Nov. 2 when adults come back to visit.
"It is my favorite ceremony because it is a time that I felt so much contact with my ancestors," Garcia said.
Candles are lit in cemeteries, so ancestors can find their way to and from the land of the living. Marigolds are a seasonal flower seen this time of year with a significant color. Yellow was the color of the dead in ancient Mesoamerica.
Hall made an alter of her mother with Snickers bars and beer on display at the library.
"It was a beautiful ritual that I really enjoyed because I got to put my mother’s picture on the alter," she said. "It’s something I would like to do every year from now on. I got the chance to think about her."
Not only do you have the same types of ancestor worship taking place in generations upon generations of different cultures, but cultures on opposite sides of the world are still participating in the same type of behavior, Smith said.
"Humans of all time periods have questions about death - what happens to the soul ... and ancestor worship helps with these questions," he said. "Even Americans who put something in the casket at a funeral have the same type mind set."
(Staff writer Michelle Corbet can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1215. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)