Word Nerd: Is Your Autumn Mellow or Macabre?

26 Sep

Hit the average litterateur with the word autumn, and instead of stars, John Keats’ lines will swim before his or her eyes. And certainly, autumn is a “season of mists”, of “mellow fruitfulness”, of the “maturing sun” and other warm and romantic fantasies.

But it is also a season of cooler air, longer nights and . . . not to be too dramatic – death.

Across the world, countries like Mexico, Scotland, England and the US honour the deceased with unique festivities. And, around these festivities is an interesting cluster of words which are like capsules – of culture, history and philosophy.

For instance, the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Celebrated on Nov 1st and 2nd, in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and Mexican-American communities of the US, the festival is typically a two-day celebration. The first day is for the deceased young – Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) or Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents). The second day gives the festival its name.

The festival can be traced back to an Aztec celebration of the goddess of the underworld. Today she is la Catrina (lady of the Dead) and her dolls are popular in shops and exhibitions. A Catrina doll is a fancily dressed female skeleton with an elaborate hat. On Dia de los Muertos, these dolls are found on many a dedicated altar. Mexicans often keep a doll or two in their household throughout the year as a reminder of the vanity of earthly possessions. After all, a skull in a fancy hat is still just that – a skull.


Anyone celebrating the Day of the Dead, is likely to be familiar not only with Catrina dolls, but also Calaveras. This word can mean skulls – decorative or edible, and seen everywhere during the festival. Another, and more interesting, meaning of the word is a sarcastic epitaph commonly written for those still living. Often the ones being criticized are those in power – politicians and the like. The literary Calaveras go back hundreds of years and were part of the Dance of Death, a type of play performed in the late medieval ages. Again a reminder that no matter where you get to in life, you will end up in the same place as everyone else


Across the ocean, most of the Western Christian countries celebrate Allhallowtide, also known as Hallowtide, Allsaintstide, or the Hallowmas season. The root of the word is in Old English – hallow comes from ‘halig’ (saint), and tide means time or season. The festival is a triduum – a three-day observance, common in the Roman Catholic Church. Allhallowtide includes All Hallows’ Eve (or Halloween), All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

The US has conflated all these festivities to the grand pop ritual that is Halloween. This celebration is marked by crazy costumes and trick-or-treating. Interestingly, the origins of the latter tradition are in a medieval English custom called souling – the baking and giving of soul cakes to children who came asking for them. These children were also called soulers, who prayed for the deceased – family, friends and even pets. The practice is still current in countries like Portuguese and Italy. Trick-or-treater is the popular term but we think souler is more interesting.

Are there any words which, for you, define your favourite festivities? Email us or let us know in the comments below.

By: Skendha Singh

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