Did you know that Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) is a celebration of life and death on November 2nd of every year? Whereas, Halloween on October 31st is All Hallows Eve.
While Halloween and Day of the Dead do share common roots, the two annual events differ vastly in traditions and nature.
Where Did the Day of the Dead Begin?
It started in pre-Hispanic times. Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihualtl. Today they also incorporate elements of Catholicism and even modern touches.
Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival is a time of celebration and remembrance of friends and family who have died and embarked on their spiritual journey through the afterlife.
Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead on November 1 called All Saints Day when the spirits of the children arrive, and on November 2, when the souls of the adults come.
It is a celebration to honour our deceased loved ones — a way to demonstrate love and respect for departed family members.
Mexican Day of the Dead Traditions
The most characteristic element of the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico is the altars (ofrendas) built on a grand scale in public places and on a much more intimate level in homes.
The altars help to guide the dead back to the realm of the living; they pay homage to lost loved ones. They include Saints that are important to the particular family.
These offerings could include, flowers, fruit, food, bread, water or any drink to quench the thirst after the long journey, family photos, candles and photos of each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, small toys might be on the altar.
Alongside the construction of altars for the dead, many communities will spend the early hours of November 2 honouring their deceased loved ones by holding graveside vigils.
In Mexico, each town, each region has its own traditions, and its personal uses and customs. Some graveyards are covered in candlelight and permeated with the scent of copal incense indeed coming alive for the night.
Most people will also take the opportunity to clean the tombstones of their deceased in the days prior too, preparing it for their return to the land of the living.
Granulated white sugar mixture makes a traditional sugar skull which then is pressed into unique heads moulds when it is dry, the sugar skull is decorated with icing, feathers, coloured foil, and more.
The candles are guides to this world. Four big candles are set, symbolising the four cardinal points. Other candles are spread over the altar, representing the path for the dead to get to the earth. The candles are usually of beeswax or paraffin.
Cempasúchil a flower nicknamed "flor de Muerto" (Flower of the Dead) also known as the Aztec or Mexican marigold, they appear almost everywhere; their petals are sometimes scattered to make paths which the returning spirits can follow.
Bread of the Dead
Bread of the Dead (Pan de Muerto) is a sugary sweet bread with a subtle orange flavour. You’ll find it in bakeries and supermarkets across the country in the run-up to November. It also adorns altars and people will eat it will coffee or hot chocolate.
Catrina was an elegant and well-dressed woman who symbolises the Day of the Dead and the willingness to laugh at death itself.
José Guadalupe Posada captured the Catrina in the 20th century. The iconic Catrina figure was named by Diego Rivera, who depicted her as a skeleton dressed in French finery.
It is customary for women on Day of the Dead to wear long, floral headpieces and Mexican dresses during the event.
Meanwhile, Mexican men often wear beautiful, smart clothing, and black hats on Dia de Los Muertos.
Men will often wear black hats, women will opt for floral headpieces.
Some people prefer to paint their face, while others love to dress up like the Catrina of Diego Rivera’s famous Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central painting.
In recent times, Day of the Day has taken on a life of its own on the cinema screen; first, in Spectre, and later, in Coco.
Live music, such as the music of Mariachis, students, trios and other local music groups, artists and jugglers, take part.
A tradition that brings together the Mexican family
The Day of the Dead celebration varies from region to region, from town to town, but they all have a universal principle: the family gathers to welcome the souls, place the altars and offerings, visit the cemetery and arrange the graves , attend religious offices, say goodbye to visitors and sit at the table to share food, which after the offering has been lifted, has lost its aroma and flavor, since the dead have taken their essence.
Halloween in America
Halloween is celebrated by both children and adults. Children dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating from house to house for candy.
They ask the traditional question “trick or treat,” implying that they will cause mischief if no treat is given.
Costumes are traditionally supernatural or frightening, but over time, they have changes to be costumes on any theme.
Popular games include apple bobbing and visiting haunted houses. Adults also enjoy Halloween with costume parties, often with varying themes that aren't necessarily related to the horror genre.
The Origin of Halloween
Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain celebrated on October 31. People would light bonfires and wear costumes to open the door so that the souls of the dead could return to this world.
The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 to honour All Saints Day incorporating some of the traditions of Samhain.
How Did Halloween Start in America?
Immigrants from Scotland and Ireland brought the holiday to the United States.
The commercialisation of Halloween started in the 1900s when postcards and die-cut paper decorations were produced. The types of products available in Halloween style increased with time.
Halloween costumes started to appear in stores in the 1930s, and the custom of 'trick-or-treat' appeared in the 1950s.
Being Mexican, I prefer Day of the Day celebrations to Halloween. In my younger years, we used to combine both traditions.
However, I enjoy seeing my family in Seattle dressing up and happily seeing the children go through the neighbourhood asking for candy on Halloween.
On the other hand, I also honour the memory of my parents in the coming days.
What about yourself? Do you celebrate anyone? What are your family's traditions around Day of the Dead and Halloween?
With much appreciation