Dia de los Muertos

 James Bond. 

James Bond. 

In 2015 a new James Bond movie hit our screens, the fourth such James Bond movie from Daniel Craig, called ‘Spectre’. The movie began on the streets of Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, during ‘Dia De Los Muertos’, a Day of the Dead parade. There were floats of skeletons, dancing people in black and white, acrobatics, and skulls (like the one on your order of service) everywhere. Death dressed as bridegrooms, death dressed as brides. There is music filling the air. The movie really immerses you within the culture and the festivities, while James Bond does what he does best - chases down a villain through the streets. The movie caused a tourism spike. People from across the world made enquires; they too wanted to have the ‘Dia De Los Muertos’ experience. There was, however, a problem with this. There is no annual Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. It was fabricated for the movie.

‘Dia De Los Muertos’ was and is celebrated in Mexico, but traditionally it has been a much more sombre affair. The religious feast day arose as a melding of two religious traditions. ‘All Saints Day’ as it is celebrated within Christianity, is a solemn celebration of those who have attained heaven. Within the Catholic tradition this finds expression as a celebration of those who are ‘known’ to be saints, which is say, those who we ‘known’ have gotten into heaven, being those who are recognised as Saints by the Catholic Church. So, ‘All Saints Day’ melded with the indigenous religious traditions of Central America, which is to say, the Aztecs and Mayans; a belief that at this time, spirits of our ancestors would come back to visit, come back from the underworld or paradise. Within Aztec religious mythology, their conception of heaven, or the afterlife, was not up there, but rather down, East or West. ← → The underworld, or if you died a good death, paradise, was where the sun rises or where the sun sets. So from these places spirits would visit. Families would create shrines to welcome their return, colourful arrays of flowers, fruit, and in modern times, photographs. This idea then endures today, but it’s now couched in Christian terms. The spirits of our ancestors now come down from Heaven; it is their Christian spirit and deeds which are celebrated. But as I said, it is a solemn day, a time to remember loved ones’ past. A time to remember. That is, until James Bond.

Given the surge of tourism interest, last year Mexico City for the first time staged an elaborate Dia De Los Muertos parade, including floats, skulls, acrobatics, the whole spectacle, inspired by the James Bond movie. It was a huge success, hundreds of thousands of people jammed into the streets for the surreal spectacle. They’re gearing up again for the same thing to happen this year; it would have happened last night. In other words, it has now become an annual event. Now there is something very odd about this. There was fear at one stage that this ‘Dia De Los Muertos’ cultural, religious tradition would slowly die away, that America’s Halloween tradition would come to dominate it. We see in this country that every year America’s Halloween style celebrations gain more traction. American Halloween merchandise takes up more and more shop space. No doubt in time it will be celebrated more or less the same here as it is in the United States. It is understandable that Central Americans would desire to perpetuate their own cultural traditions, and not be subsumed into American culture. And yet, the notion that they’re perpetuating an old ancient religious tradition, going back all the way to the Aztecs, well it’s not really true. The Dia De Los Muertos parade that unfolded last night on the streets of Mexico City has far more to do with a production house in London, than it has to with inherited indigenous religious traditions. There’s a Romanised idea of Latin American culture. It was that idea that the James Bond franchise used, and it’s now that idea which will endure because it is economically advantageous for it to endure. Culture and tradition is perpetuated largely because it sells; increasingly so. A lot of tourism is perpetuated not by the particularities of place, but by the Romanised idea of place.

The classic example of this in my mind is talking to Americans about Scotland. I grew up in Scotland and then moved to America. Now, the Scotland I grew up in has basically no correlations at all to the Scotland Americans visit on their holidays. There’s a romanticised vision of Scotland that lies somewhere between Harry Potter and Braveheart, that is sought out to the seclusion of reality. It’s this illusion which sells, and so it is this illusion which is perpetuated, and as it is perpetuated it is confused with reality, lines become blurred, and what the truth even is is lost to us. It’s inevitable, culture is condemned to become increasingly commodified. In this small community we resist this commodification in small token ways, perhaps most significantly by simply acknowledging that so much of culture is a constructed illusion. For here we seek an authentic connection, a connection which links us back through time with our ancestors, with one another, and to a shared story. We strive after the way of love, the way of compassion, the way of peace…

 

Amen.