Countries in North America such as Mexico and the United States are pioneers of the international celebrations of “Halloween” and “Day of the Dead”.
But what are their meanings and why do we celebrate them?
As we know, the influence of cultures and traditions around the world is increasing, especially among these two countries.
For many, Halloween is a costume party with carved pumpkins celebrated every October 31st.
For others, the Day of the Dead or “Día de los Muertos” is a celebration of the dead with funny skeletons.
But both have a much more meaningful and share various similarities. For example: neither is a Christian celebration, both are mainly represented by orange and black colors, the two celebrations survived when religious authorities attempted to remove them, they both have their respective dates established by imposition of the church after surviving an attempt to minimize them or make them disappear, and pumpkin is present in both celebrations. Coincidentally, the two of them were also celebrated at the end of harvest season.
Also worth mentioning, both holidays feature the presence of spirits and skulls; although Halloween has a macabre connotation and an idea in which the beings from beyond hurt and cause fear, the spirits and skulls of the Day of the Dead are always cheerful, almost behaving as if they were still alive plus they are invited to return so they can be honored. Either way, today they both produce joy as we celebrate them.
Simple mortals like us doing a little research here and there discovered that the “cult” of the dead with either title is not an exclusive tradition of Mexico or the United States and has also appeared in cultures of Europe and Asia.
But let’s do a short review of the two traditions in question:
Halloween vs Day of the Dead
Día de Los Muertos
Halloween (a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening, also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve), is an interesting holiday in the US because it is a blend of many ancient and mysterious customs – each with their own history, or at least a story behind it.
One of the coolest is that Halloween has its roots in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”). That festival would mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and would always take place at the end of the (equivalent Celtic calendar) month of October.
At the time, it was based on the connection of the cycles of nature, and when animals and plants would adjust for the changing temperature. After a while, it became thought of as the “Celtic New Year”, and an important date when the worlds of the living and the dead would come together. Some spirits were thought to cause trouble, so the Celts would light bonfires at night to chase evil spirits away.
Sometimes they lit candles or carved lanterns out of vegetables, like squash. Here in the Americas, pumpkins were used. At first, celebration of Halloween in colonial New England was limited because of the rigid Protestant belief systems they had. But as the beliefs and customs of different ethnic groups merged, a truly American version of Halloween developed.
By the 1900’s the focus of the holiday had shifted from spiritual to more of a communal celebration. Festive parties and colorful costumes became more common, as children were encouraged to dress in costumes.
Vange: (Interrupting) Really, Cariño! Batman?
Justin: That’s right, I’m sure! But let me continue…
Can you believe that Anoka, Minnesota was the first city in United States to officially hold a Halloween celebration?! The idea was to distract kids from pulling pranks like letting cows run loose on Main Street or tipping over outhouses. Oh, those crazy kids…
To keep the vandalism and pranks down, the “trick or treat” concept was introduced in schools and communities, and now every year over 500 *million* pounds of candy are consumed in the US on this holiday.
I confess to contributing to this madness – I love eating the leftover chocolates!
The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely, and yet there is no “wrong* way to celebrate Halloween, as it is mix of different customs and even holidays are subject to evolution.
As long as people celebrate in a safe and happy way, the spirit of Halloween will last throughout the ages.
This celebration of Hispanic cultures in the Americas is of equal importance.
However what we know as the “Day of the Dead” as such, is an indigenous tradition that originated in Mexico which was held in August and coincided with the end of the agricultural cycle of maize (corn), squash, pumpkin and others. The products harvested was part of the offering. This celebration was not related to All Souls or All Saints day held the first two days of November.
But after the arrival of the Spaniards the date to celebrate the Day of the Dead moved to November 1st celebrated for the deceased who left as children and November 2nd for the deceased adults.
Within the pre-hispanic vision, the act of dying was the beginning of a journey to Mictlan, the realm of the skeletal dead or underworld, also called Xiomoayan, a word translated for the Spaniards as hell. This trip lasted four days. Upon reaching their destination, the traveler offered gifts to the lords of Mictlan: Mictlantecuhtli (Lord of Death) and his partner Mictecacíhuatl (Lady of the Dead). They will then send the traveler into one of the nine regions, were the traveler remained for a four years probation period before continuing his/her life in Mictlan to finally reach the top floor, which was the place of eternal rest called “Obsidian of the Dead”.
Graphically, the idea of death as a disembodied being was always present in the pre-Hispanic world for Totonaca, Nahuatl, Mexica and Maya among others ethnic groups, who celebrated death and rebirth in their own way. At this time it was a common practice to keep skulls (today known as Alfeñiques, or sugar skulls) as trophies and display them during the rituals and offerings (Tzompantli known as altars) to symbolize death and rebirth.
The celebration of the Day of the Dead, as such, is celebrated in different ways even within Mexico.
Over the years, because now it shares the same date with other celebrations, the Day of the Dead has modified details like the famous altar; decorated with items such as a photo of our dear loved ones who are no longer physically living in this world as well as cross-shaped candles, incense, sugarcane arches and sugar skulls and even the favorite food and drink of those we honor on the altar. Also found in cemeteries and altars are the orange marigold flowers (Cempasúchil).
It is said that perforated tissue paper (Papel Picado) is an Eastern invention, which is why it is called in Spanish “Chinese Paper”.
Another Mexican tradition that accompanies the “Day of the Dead” are the rhymes called “Calaveritas”, the legends of “La Llorona” (The Weeping Woman) and of course The Bread of the Dead (Pan de Muertos). The appearance and taste of which will change depending on the region. Justin: (interrupting) I’m hungry, I want Pan de Muerto!
Vange: Wait, I’m almost done with my narration…
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the iconic skeleton dressed as an elegant lady known as “La Calavera Garbancera” (Dapper Skeleton) created by José Guadalupe Posada in 1910-13. She was renamed as “La Catrina” years later by Diego Rivera.
The combination of ancient and modern traditions complements this beautiful celebration, which resulted in UNESCO declaring it an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity reinforcing even more that “The Day of the Dead,” is an original and fun holiday that has lasted and will last many centuries more.
So, Halloween vs Day of the Death? Being part of a marriage between a Mexican and an American and also due to the fact that both countries have always celebrated the two festivities one way or another, personally we think both are equally valid traditions with a unique individual importance; both are fun and cultural, tons of films, books, songs and legends are inspired by them and most important those two traditions gather friends and family together. So in our home we try to combine our traditions as much as possible.
We really find it fun to decorate our place with pumpkins, witches, spiders and ghosts, and set up a small altar. We also like to buy the traditional pan de muerto and pumpkin pie. We also are prepared with extra candy in case we receive young visitors asking for Trick or Treat or begging for a “Calaverita”.
Whatever you decide…
¡Feliz día de Los Muertos! and Happy Halloween!
And you, how do you celebrate?