Thoughts from Abroad is a periodic column written by an Exponent staff member studying abroad. The column serves to illustrate differences in culture, issues and perspectives observed by the way-faring student. Currently, Elise Byle is studying in Spain.
I walk past a costume shop every time I go to the market. Since my arrival in Spain, I have watched the window display morph from ballerina costumes into terrifying monster masks and bloody gowns. Yes, Spain celebrates Halloween but the whole “dress as a sexy (insert random item here)” never caught on. In fact, it would be difficult to find someone over the age of 12 dressed up and all the elementary schoolers are dressed as mini grotesque witches and contorted ghouls.
In Spain, Halloween is a three-day endeavour. The first day, Oct. 31, most closely resembles American Halloween. It is called “Dia de las Brujas” (Day of the Witches) and is now becoming more controversial with the rise of American traditions. The younger children predictably love the idea of costumes, but the older generation is hesitant to emphasize the first day of the festival when they believe the focus should be on day two: “Dia de todos los Santos” (All Saints Day). This is a national holiday and everything shuts down as families gather to honor their deceased relatives. With flowers, food and beverages, the living reunite over graves to celebrate life. The third day is a toned down version of the day before. Nov. 2 is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). In Spain, this isn’t the focal point of the festival, but in Mexico and certain countries in South America, Day of the Dead is culturally significant.
The Spanish-speaking countries across the ocean share a similar outlook on death as Spain. Day of the Dead sounds morbid to Americans but is more a celebration of life than an idealization of death. Americans tend to have a tragic view on death. While it is always heartbreaking to lose someone dear, hispanic culture supports the idea of joy over tragedy, appreciation of what was rather than sadness for what was lost.
Some form of Halloween exists in many countries around the world and each culture has unique traditions. While the U.S. also has distinct customs, our nation is distinct because never before have so many different cultures come together in one country. The vast majority of our population is comprised of immigrants. These people brought with them the lifestyles of their country and from those, a patchwork of holidays was formed. Almost any day of the year, one can find a holiday, a religious festival, a Native observance, to celebrate. Being a patriot means that you respect America and her people, wherever they come from. How one celebrates Oct. 31 is the right way to celebrate for an American, as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else’s right to celebrate as well. America was born from diversity and celebrates all people from all walks of life. So if you want to celebrate Day of the Witches, go for it. Day of the Dead? Absolutely. The American tradition is adopting and adapting to new cultural influences.
However, we have also grown into a materialistic society and we like to wrap culturally relevant days in layers of commercialism and made-up facts. If celebrating other cultures appeals to you, it is crucial that you do your research. Understand the history of the event and in what ways it is appropriate to participate. Do this with holidays you think you already understand. Who knew that the Easter Bunny came across the Atlantic with the Germans? A lot of American culture was created by invoking ideas from around the world. Carry on that tradition with informed, culturally aware behavior.