Days of Saints and The Dead

Claim your saintly identity with each step on your path.

The Grandfather whispered these words in my ear during the passing of the peace. The Grandfather was reiterating the message of the Bishop's sermon - what we believe is what the Apostle Paul writes in his letters: sainthood comes in baptism. We belong to God's kingdom now, and we live full, fruitful lives when we live in God's way right now. Some day we will be laid out dead in a church and people will remember us, but we don't wait until that moment to claim our sainthood.

Today we celebrated All Saints Day in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church. Today we remembered our loved ones, the saints who have gone beyond this short life into the long life of eternity. Today we honored the saints who lived inspirational lives of faith and who, like the Lutheran pastors Francisco and Jesusita, lost their lives because of their Godly work.

Día de los Muertos celebration with Aztec dancers
(Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA)

Depending on our religious traditions and our cultures, we celebrate All Saints Day in different ways. In the US, we might know the history of All Hallow's Eve (Halloween) and All Hallows Day (or All Saints Day). If we come from a Roman Catholic background, we might also know about All Souls Day. In many places such as in my home city in the US, churches and community groups are working together to build stronger intercultural relationships, so that celebrating el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) brings local indigenous culture together with cultures of native peoples from throughout the Americas together with Christian celebrations. In general, we can say that many US Christians recognize the days of the saints as a time of year in which to honor and remember the lives of loved ones who have died and to specially recognize and hold up those great role models of faith who inspire and guide us.

In El Salvador, the celebrations surrounding All Saints Day are much more widely practiced than in the United States. Families dedicate time inside and outside of church to honor their deceased loved ones and spend time together.

Article from El Diario de Hoy which features a photo
of more than 500 pumpkins to be cooked in solidified cane sugar.

In Tonacatepeque, the saints days festivities begin with the Fiesta de la Calabiuza. This year, the festival was held on November 1st. The festival celebrates the local legends and mysteries which have been handed down through generations of campesinos. (If you click on the "legends" label to your right, you can find various stories which I have transcribed and translated over the years.) Due to a flight delay, we missed out on this year's festival, but a quick visit to the town's Facebook page took me to some good photos, videos and news reports of this year's events. Apparently the town used more than 500 pumpkins to make the traditional "pumpkin in honey" treat that everyone eats after the parade.

Plastic floral garlands on some of our ofrendas (altars) from our
Milwaukee Day of the Dead celebration. I learned how to make the
garlands a few years ago from women in Tonactepeque.

November 1st is All Saints Day. Historically this was a day in the Roman Catholic Church celebrated in honor of those who had been declared saints by the church. Now this celebration has mostly been relegated to a Sunday celebration.

In El Salvador, November 2nd is the Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead or Deceased). Traditionally, this was a day on which families prayed for their loved ones who had died but were not yet in the presence of God, and for some this remains a strong tradition. November 2nd is an official government holiday. Offices and schools are closed. Because this year Día de los Muertos fell on a Thursday, we observed that schools were also not in session on Friday, November 3rd. The Days of the Dead bring families to the cemeteries, where they clean and decorate the tombs of their loved ones. Many of the families use plastic flowers, pinwheels and plastic garlands as grave decorations which will last until Christmas. Sometimes a family will bring food and music (perhaps a mariachi group) into the graveyard and share a sort of picnic beside their loved ones.

As cultures from North, Central and South America increasingly intersect, traditions evolve and grow. We are certainly richer, I think, when we can share each other's stories, histories and traditions. It is important not to make assumptions, such as equating the Fiesta de la Calabiuza with Halloween (which comes from an Anglo-Saxon tradition, and not Central America), nor to draw broad generalizations about any culture.

A photo from today's All Saints celebration at a Milwaukee-area
Lutheran Church (photo credit: Pastor Eric)

As the names of deceased loved ones were read during worship in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church today, candles were placed on the floor in the shape of a cross. The Bishop reminded us that if we feel like crying, we should cry. If we feel like laughing, we should laugh. We are saints and we are not perfect, and we have each other. And while we surely should never abandon the graves of our loved ones, we are wise to spend the days of the dead with the saints who are still walking in this life.

These are the days of the saints and of the dead. So begins November, the month of the martyrs. In El Salvador, November is a month of remembering and giving thanks for those who have taught us how to claim our sainthood as we take each step on our path in this short life on earth.


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