Remembering the Dead: La Toussaint, Dia de Los Muertos, and Obon

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Beyond candy and scary costumes, this time of the year is also celebrated as la Toussaint, Dia de Los Muertos, and Obon in France, Mexico, and Japan respectively.

For Part I, about Halloween in Ireland and the United States, click here. 

Toussaint (All Saints’ Day), France – November 1st

by Claire-Marie Healy
A graduate of the London School of Economics, Claire-Marie Healy advises on regulatory affairs for the GSMA on policies related to the digital economy. After the birth of her daughter Valentina, she was inspired to create ‘Attention, Bébé a Bord!’ –her own radio show about parenting. You can check it out here

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In France, la Toussaint, or All Saints’ Day, is a Christian day of remembrance of all saints and martyrs, including those saints who don’t have a feast day named after them.[/perfectpullquote]

Toussaint is always celebrated on November 1st and is a bank holiday for everyone, so if you are in France during that day, you will find everything, other than flower shops, churches, and cemeteries, closed down.

Lyon All Saints Day
Photo Courtesy: Séverine Perronnet

On November 1st, a special mass is also organised for the occasion and many people visit the graves of deceased family members afterward, bringing flowers and lighting candles on the graves. The flowers of choice for graves are Chrysanthemums which symbolize death. They are also used for funerals. The cemeteries across France take on a rainbow of colours of flowers and jarred candles during this week.

The cemeteries across France take on a rainbow of colours of flowers and candles in jars during this time. Click To Tweet

If you don’t want to make a cultural “faux-pas” in France, it is better to avoid offering chrysanthemums at a French dinner party and pick up another flower as it is strongly seen as a symbol of death and funeral!

Don't make a cultural a faux-pas in France by offering chrysanthemums at a dinner party. Click To Tweet

Another tradition for All Saints’ Day is the family gathering for lunch to enjoy a shared meal, usually, lamb with gratin dauphinois (potatoes with crème in the oven) while sharing memories with the grandparents and the grandchildren playing in the garden (or with their smartphones nowadays). Typically in France, lunch can last a whole day and is a chance to strengthen family ties through a pleasant day and some good wine bien sur!


Also read:  Culturally Jewish: Raising Interfaith Kids


Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Mexico – October 31 – November 2

by Ambar Lietar Hernandez
Ambar Lietar Hernandez was born in Mexico City and arrived in Brussels to study for a year abroad last century (1999)… and decided to stay in the capital of Europe. She’s worked with families and children for the last 23 years,
is a certified youth worker with a background in communication studies, cinema writing and analysis, and energy therapy. Ambar is currently an Usborne Books independent organizer. Check out The Little Book Den.

If you have watched James Bond, The Book Of Life, or are planning to watch Pixar’s Coco when it comes out in the cinemas you might have heard of this no-longer-so-obscure Mexican holiday. As many other Mexican traditions, it is a mix of pre-Colombian and Catholic beliefs and rites. But despite what you may have seen in the movies, traditionally it is something more private and with less folklore, depending on the region.

Back in my childhood, it was the opportunity for our teachers to make us write “Calaveras” (skulls): humorous poetry about friends, family or public figures talking about how the “calavera” got them and took them with her. In my high school, we would also have some epic altar contests. I vaguely remember each stage of the altar having a meaning about the path to the underworld our ancestors took, and I know there are some villages in Mexico where it is believed that during the “all saints” period (1st to 3rd of November) they actually come back to be with their family. We would make huge altars in each classroom honoring someone important that had passed away, often of Mexican origin, but some exceptions were made (most of the time we chose revolutionary or heroes from the time of independence.) We had to decorate them with flowers, colored sawdust, candles, pictures, and typical food and beverages.

We would make huge altars in each classroom honoring someone that had passed away. Click To Tweet
Day of the Dead
The author’s daughter, Johanna, dressed up for a Halloween party in Brussels as the “Catrina” (typical representation of the death).

During this period the mercados (indoor town markets) are decorated with “papel picado“: beautiful garlands, made with cut out tissue paper of all colors and in complicated patterns. Also, you can find colorful sugar decorated skulls with names on their foreheads that you can give to family and friends, and finally at homes… some will make a small altar, most won’t. But everyone, from the most humble to the richest, will all sit down in the evening to eat “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead) and hot chocolate.

It is a simple and strange celebration, but profoundly rooted in traditions… so much that Halloween has had a hard time taking over and now you actually see the “día de los muertos” becoming more popular in the USA, and some of the big symbols, like the beautiful skull makeup, becoming more and more popular in the world.

Strangely enough, “Días de los muertos” is not so much about celebrating death as much as remind us that no matter who we are, we will end up the same…so we make fun of it at the same time as we remember where we come from by honoring our ancestors.

Días de los muertos is a reminder that no matter who we are, we all end up the same. Click To Tweet

Bread of the death, sugar skulls, candles and cempazuchitl flowers (Aztec marigold) are some of the typical decorations on a traditional altar.

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Obon, Japan – August 

by Yuya Kiuchi
Yuya Kiuchi is the Graduate Director of the GPIDEA programs and assistant professor of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University. He has published Race Still Matters (SUNY Press, 2016) and other books, as well as editorials in the Lansing State Journal and Al Jazeera about issues concerning culture. 

Obon, for many Japanese families, is an opportunity to come together as a family while honoring our ancestors. Unlike the New Year’s Day, another occasion for families to gather primarily to wish for a good new year, Obon is about living an old tradition and respecting ancestors’ spirit. Most offices and stores close for Obon for a few days so that their employers and employees can travel to their hometown. On August 13th with some regional variations, people visit their family cemetery, light a lantern, and bring the fire—or the symbol of the ancestral spirits—back home. On August 15th, in the evening, the spirits are sent off. Sometimes this is done by lighting a bonfire or releasing paper lanterns into the air or down the river.

Obon in Japan is about living an old tradition and respecting ancestors’ spirit. Click To Tweet
Also read:  Year of the Dog: How one Jewish-Chinese Family Celebrates the Chinese New Year

Video Credit: Guilhem Vellut via Flickr. For license of use, click here

This tradition has increasingly become important for many families. Because of the concentration of professional opportunities to just a handful of urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka, many Japanese live far away from their hometown. Few Japanese workers take long enough vacations to visit their family except for Obon and the New Year’s Day. As a result, it has become rarer and rarer for extended families to gather. Grandparents do not see their grandchildren often. Contemporary lifestyle in Japan facing globalization has moved away from the country’s tradition. Obon today is a rare occasion for many Japanese to honor their ancestors and appreciate the tradition.

Obon is a rare occasion for the Japanese to honor their ancestors and appreciate traditions. Click To Tweet
Photo Credit: Timothy Takemoto via Flickr. For license, click here. According to the photographer, “These rice cakes for the dead are made to be displayed near the ancestral altar in Japanese homes at the time of obon, the summer festival of the dead. The cakes come in bright colours, and fruity shapes but they taste of sawdust or sand. The ancestral spirits see, and feast upon them with their eyes. Spirits do not have a sense of taste.”

As Japanese families diversify through international and multicultural marriages, it is now common to see someone born outside Japan actively participating in the Obon tradition. Some cities outside Japan with a high concentration of Japanese expatriates hold Obon festivals. I have lived in the U.S. for over 10 years and have not been able to be back to Japan for Obon. But when my wife, born and raised in the U.S., and I go to Japan, we visit the cemeteries for my grandparents and my father. The old tradition may look different today but continues to survive both inside and outside Japan and both, with the Japanese and non-Japanese.

The Obon tradition may look different today but continues to survive both inside and outside Japan. Click To Tweet

Séverine Perronnet worked on coordinating authorship for this article. 


Also read:  Funerals and Faith: Cultural Rituals of Grief

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About Suchitra

Suchitra is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief at theParentVoice.Com. In a previous life, she has worked as a journalist, and a professor of Communication Studies before trading professing for parenting full-time. She is the author, co-author, and co-editor of three academic books. She is also a dot mandala artist and runs a small business from her home studio.

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