Reverence for the dead is widely recognized as an unmistaken marker of the human condition. From the Egyptians and Romans to the Mayan and Mexicas, offerings and elaborate funeral rituals were prepared to ease the transition of the souls of the deceased into the world of the ethereal, and a trip to the underworld was often seen as a necessary challenge for the souls to complete the journey to their final resting place. In Christianity, the first evidence of November 1st as a day of celebration of the feast of All Saints was recorded during the time of Pope Gregory III (731–741 AD), who on that day, dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, in Rome, to honour all saints and martyrs; later on, in 837 AD, Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance as the religious feast of All Saints’ Day. In England, the date was known as All Hallows-mas during the Middle Ages; people prepared for their celebration with a vigil the night before, that is, All Hallows’ Eve. Finally, Odilo, the fifth Abbot of Cluny, in France, assigned November 2nd as All Souls’ Day in 998 AD, a day specific for remembering and praying for those who had passed away but were still in the process of purification; this observance gradually spread throughout the Catholic Church towards the end of the 10th century. The three days all together were sometimes referred to as All-hallow-tide.
So the journey begins on October 31st, with the vigil of All Hallows’ Eve, or as it is still known, Halloween. When it was time to stay up for the vigil, people in those old days were afraid of the dark, marked by the shortening of day hours of late fall days, as well as the cold air signalling the winter season soon to come. It was believed that souls came back to the earthly world, still in purgatory or restless from recent death, some seeking revenge from injustices committed by those still alive. To avoid being recognized by these spirits, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark, to disguise themselves as wandering souls. Another practice on Halloween, was to place food and wine outside their homes to appease the restless souls and prevent them from causing mischief. These superstitions have evolved into the lighter and secular traditions of dressing up as ghouls and ghosts, and trick or treating.
A post about Halloween would not be complete without a scary story; La Llorona, El Chupacabras and other well known Mexican Legends popped up on my Google search. I also came across a very interesting character which arrived to Latin America from Portugal and Spain, used in the olden days to “encourage” children to behave nicely and go early to bed; “El Coco” (or Cucuy), is an evil being who comes out of the dark, late at night, to take misbehaved children if they are awake, or worse, to eat them. EL Coco is at the center of many bloodcurdling stories and depictions in Spanish literature and art, such as Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’ illustration “Que Viene el Coco” (“El Coco is coming”, detail pictured at the top of the post.) The Royal Spanish Academy includes the definition of “coco” as a word derived from the Portuguese côco – a ghost sporting a hollowed pumpkin for a head!
Could Jack – the mischievous being trapped between Heaven and Hell – and El Coco, be one and the same? (insert sounds of evil laughter and cold wind blowing … )
When I was a little girl, this Hispanic version of the boogeyman would be frequently named (mostly by my teen-aged brother trying to scare me), even as part of a bed time lullaby (sure, sleep well, baby). El Coco always failed to scare me, nevertheless, because in my mind, I would just picture a coconut, the tropical fruit, or coco, in Spanish. Coco is also a colloquial word to refer to one’s head, and of course it should not come as a surprise that it was a Spanish sailor who named the fruit, upon seeing its hard inner shell for the first time in the Polynesian islands, and relating that it looked like a coco (head), all hairy and with its three dark depressions resembling eyes and mouth:
FUN FACT: Disney’s Pixar movie “Coco” tells the story of a Mexican young boy visiting his relatives in the underworld while on a quest, but the title name has no relation to the scary legend; it was chosen because Coco is a common nickname for Socorro, the boy’s great grandmother’s name in the story.