El Día de los Muertos, translated as the Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday also celebrated in many US communities. It has roots both in the Catholic observances of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and in indigenous Mexican beliefs about the dead.
According to the ancient religion of Mexico, Day of the Dead traditions help the spirits of the dead return to their families, keeping them happy and forestalling the difficulties the dead could inflict on the living. Celebrations vary by region, but they have much in common: altars with offerings to dead relatives, skull-shaped sugar candies, marigolds, incense, votives, and food; candlelit cemeteries; tissue-paper cutouts; and calaverita (“little skull”) decorations everywhere.
CT asked Christians who’ve been in ministry in places where the Day of the Dead is celebrated, “Can Christians participate in good conscience? If so, how?”
Sally Isáis (Mexico City, Mexico): Christians shouldn’t participate at all, given the nature of the holiday.
Every mid-October before the Day of the Dead, my parents would receive a note from my Mexico City school saying, “If your daughter does not bring her part for the classroom offering, she will flunk civics class.”
My mother would say, “I am sorry, but as evangelical Christians, we cannot be part of this celebration, even if it means Sally will not pass the course.” She would then ask the teacher if there was any way that I could make up for not participating. Some years I flunked the course, and other years I was allowed to present another project. My peers were always upset that I would not do my part to decorate the class altar to the dead. My children had similar experiences when they were in Mexico City schools.
Some people see the Day of the Dead as simply a Mexican cultural art form and a family-friendly celebration: colorful, decorative, and dramatic, even somewhat romantic. However, there is a dark spiritual side to the holiday that has steadily increased and become more obvious and unrestrained.
Like other evangelicals in Mexico, I believe the Day of the Dead is about honoring death—not just the dead—and taking part (consciously or unconsciously) in occult practices that God forbids his people to engage in (Deut. 18:10–14).
I asked other Mexican evangelical leaders to weigh in, and they were very consistent on the issue. I haven’t found any evangelical Christians in Mexico who would actively participate in this tradition in which our culture, like the prophet Daniel’s, pushes us to compromise our worship of the one true God.
“Under no circumstance should a truly born-again believer celebrate the Day of the Dead,” says Victoriano Baez Camargo, pastoral leader and former director of the Mexican Bible Society.
Pastor Cirilo Cruz, president of the National Evangelical Fraternity of Mexico, states, “Every altar to the dead has idols. Daniel chose not to contaminate himself with things offered to them.”
Gilberto Rocha and his wife, Clara, pastors of the megachurch Calacoaya, say the normalization of Día de los Muertos shouldn’t be a big factor: “Our basis should be the Word of God and not culture or what is in style.”
“Our participation during these days is that of witnessing,” says Cruz. Many evangelical churches hold all-night prayer meetings and evangelistic outreach efforts during these especially dark days.
At the core of many Mexican Christians’ objections to Día de Los Muertos is its celebration of death. “This celebration is in reality the worship of death. Jesus taught us to celebrate life and that death is no longer triumphant,” says Baez Camargo.
The Rochas note that “Scripture is very clear regarding death: it is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). We cannot celebrate our enemy. We must choose between life (a blessing) and death (a curse).”
“The only death that Christians celebrate is that of our Savior and the life that his sacrifice has afforded to us. We celebrate Jesus, the Bread of Life—not the dead. We participate at the table of Christ, not at the table of demons” asserts pastor Edna Porras.
Believers should not participate in the Day of the Dead. To do so is to play with fire. During the days of Día de los Muertos, we Christians take the opportunity to celebrate and share the life offered to us through Jesus Christ, who conquered death.
Sally Isáis is the director of Milamex, a nonprofit ministry that leads and empowers Mexicans in their calling to walk alongside the Church and serve Christ in all areas of life.
Heidi Carlson (San Diego, California): Christians should avoid ancestor worship, but we can mourn with those who mourn.
I wasn’t born into a family that participates in Day of the Dead rituals. So, when I realized I needed to prepare my children for the festivities in our San Diego neighborhood, the context I primarily drew upon was my upbringing in Africa.
Our Sherman Heights community in San Diego holds the region’s most traditional Day of the Dead festivities, where the local community center hosts a hall of altars and residents participate in a candlelight procession. People set up altars in their front yards with candles, offerings, and photos. Those thoughtfully curated displays are more prevalent on our evening walks than fake cobwebs or other Halloween decorations.
In Mozambique, where I grew up, ancestor worship, as well as ancestor veneration, played an important role in people’s lives. In ancestor worship, the dead aren’t simply honored; their souls need to be appeased, as they can make the lives of the living better or worse. Ancestors are revered as spiritual entities that communicate with family on earth and act as mediators to a distant god. They are a presence in daily life. Fear is a common theme in ancestor worship.
For people across the globe, honoring ancestors can become a fear-filled religion. In cultures where ancestor veneration forms an integral part of cultural identity, Christians who do not participate in the rituals often risk persecution. Their seeming lack of reverence for ancestors might bring shame and bad fortune to the family. It is an apparent rejection of their cultural identity.
Given this understanding, my instinct was to remain separate and not be present at any Day of the Dead events in our neighborhood. Being present at events might hinder my Christian witness, I thought. Others might think I’m tacitly endorsing ancestor worship if I engage in the activities. But these were our neighbors, our community. What was our calling in this context?
Once, during an evening stroll, we met a neighbor sitting on his front porch, carefully curating an altar. His front steps were lined with a beautiful arrangement of flowers and candles, interspersed with framed family photos. He had never done an altar before. But his father passed away the previous year, so this year he wanted to memorialize him. Joyfully, he pointed out photos and shared memories. For this neighbor, the altar functioned as a memorial.
I learned that for many residents, the Day of the Dead is a holiday of remembrance. Sharing stories and the act of communal remembrance can be a meaningful event. Day of the Dead in Sherman Heights is also a festival celebrating cultural heritage.
The secularization and commercialization have made pathways around its connection with the occult and ancestor worship, in the same way that many who enjoy Halloween are not participating in pagan ritual.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the strong spiritual component to Day of the Dead. Some people—even churchgoers—pray to dead relatives and leave food offerings, fearing what will happen if they don’t.
Mixing Christianity with other practices and coming to believe a gospel of works may be glaringly obvious syncretism when I perceive it in others. But there are ways I may be syncretistic, trusting in Jesus and something else, that are not so spiritually different from an offering to a dead relative.
No matter where Day of the Dead celebrants fall on the spectrum or how your neighbors and community celebrate, this is not a holiday to be feared. When I see the smirking skull, I think of Paul’s words: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55–57).
When the neighborhood is bedecked with sugar skulls, candles, and pots of marigolds, I engage, asking my neighbors questions about beloved deceased family members and sharing in joy at the memories.
And perhaps I will have the opportunity to share with them the joy and assurance we have because we serve the God of the living, not the dead—the God who welcomes us not because of the rituals we perform but because of the work he did on the cross.
Heidi Carlson is a writer now living in the Kingdom of Bahrain with her husband and four children.
Alexia Salvatierra (Pasadena, California): This is an issue Christians can disagree on, so long as we put our neighbors’ spiritual health first.
Paul had to teach the early church about more than one morally thorny question. Instead of coming down neatly with a list of dos and don’ts, the apostle raised a more fundamental theological principle: How will this choice affect your neighbor?
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor. 10:23–24).
As a Lutheran, I understand church holidays as physical reminders of spiritual principles: helpful for people with bodies, whose learning is strengthened by physical experience. All Saints’ Day—one of the traditions el Día de los Muertos stems from—is a vehicle for the biblical message that the body of Christ is both earthly and heavenly, providing a moment of reassurance, a sense of support, and a gift of perspective.
Of course, el Día de los Muertos is not All Saints’ Day. For some, it is a form of ancestor worship or an excuse for a drunken party. For others, it is a time of remembering loved ones and valuing the gift of family.
I was born in Los Angeles, to family who came from the antichurch, socialist tradition in Mexico and saw the holiday as encouraging superstition. I became a Christian in the Jesus Movement of the ’70s.
I joined evangelical Spanish-speaking churches who saw the holiday as promoting a dangerous distortion of the afterlife, distracting people from the eternal consequences of accepting or rejecting Jesus as Lord and Savior, and encouraging pagan beliefs.
When I became a Lutheran pastor, I walked into a debate between pastors who shared the above perspective and others who thought the holiday was a positive cultural practice for its emphasis on the value of family and respect for elders, useful as a teaching tool.
How should Christians respond? Do we participate in the best aspects of the holiday and ignore the worst? Do we absent ourselves and denounce it? In the Lutheran Hispanic context as well as in the Centro Latino community at Fuller Theological Seminary, we can find both perspectives.
It is ultimately a question of evangelism: how we proclaim the gospel in words and deeds so that the love of Christ and the way of Christ are both experienced and named.
At times in the Book of Acts, Paul pointed out God’s presence in the familiar and used that as a signpost to lead people to a saving knowledge of Christ. At other times, he denounced idol worship and sinful cultural practices.
In all of the cultures that I know well, people honor the memory of their dead relatives. I can't imagine why we would consider that in itself to be a sin. As for the altars, or shrines, of Day of the Dead, building a shrine is sinful or not depending on who you are worshiping there. If you are worshiping an idol, then it is a sin. If you are worshiping God, then it is not.
However, in the Latin American context, a Christian would have to do some intentional work to clarify that a picture of a relative at a Día de los Muertos shrine was not being treated as an idol.
It is possible to use Día de los Muertos as an occasion to preach about earthly and heavenly family, to talk about eternal life, to ask what it takes to truly laugh in the face of death—and perhaps to do all that at the table of celebration with “tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:15–16).
It is also possible to use Día de los Muertos to talk about how to separate from the world and seek a life of purity and faithfulness, embodying the Word in the refusal to participate.
Whether to participate in the holiday is a question of discernment in context, using the guiding principle of love for one’s neighbor. This is an example of what Martin Luther called adiaphora, a topic about which faithful Christians can disagree without breaking the unity that Jesus prayed for.
Alexia Salvatierra is Academic Dean at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Centro Latino and ordained pastor since 1988.
A reference to Martin Luther’s hymns has been removed because there is no reliable evidence that the tune to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was originally from a drinking song.
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