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Do Halloween and Day of the Dead Celebrate the Same Holiday?

October 18, 2021

Although both are ancient traditions that grew into global holidays, the answer is no. Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) and Halloween (All Hallows Eve) are evolving events that can be traced to an Aztec festival and the Celtic Samhain, respectively. While Halloween and Day of the Dead do share some common roots, they began and grew as totally different holidays. Thus, it is inaccurate to refer to Day of the Dead as “Mexican Halloween” or to refer to Halloween as the “Night of the Dead”. The obvious link between the two would be the rise of Christianity following its spread throughout the Roman Empire, and the church’s conversion of pagan holidays into church-supported celebrations. So, it is understandable that people often confuse the two. Moreover, many families (and religions) do not celebrate Halloween in the United States and many families in Mexico do not participate in Dia de Muertos... yet many still do!

Halloween Dates Back to the Festival of Samhain

The ancient Celts who lived mostly in the area of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France had a spiritual tradition that celebrated the end of summer from October 31 to November 1 as a way of welcoming in the harvest of fall crops; while at the same time, ushering in their winter the dark half of the year. Ancient Samhain was considered to be the most significant of four annual fire festivals as it represented the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. For the indigenous Celtics, it became tradition to make sacrifices to their gods during harvest time as a way of honoring their dead. 

Halloween shares an element of using spooky decorations, like witches, skeletons, ghosts, and headstones to poke fun at things that scare us. However, culminating with a night of trick-or-treat, Halloween was not meant to be a day of reflection for connecting with family members who had passed. It was simply the night before All Saints Day, a Catholic tradition for commemorating saints and martyrs on November 1st. All Souls Day honored Christian departed on November 2nd. Nonetheless, as a ritual, Halloween continues to be stripped of its initial images of fear, mortality and the spookiness of the unknown or underworld, which can be seen in today's more frivalous costumes.

Dia de Muertos Traditions to Commune with Those Who Passed

Dia de Muertos is a three-day holiday explicitly about afterlife and based on the concept that people are really only dead once others have forgotten about them. In this sense, ceremonies are stagged with offerings of food, letters, poems, and even jokes about friends and family members who had passed away. Sugar skulls are made in clay molds and decorated with paint, feathers, foil, and icing, often with the name of the deceased painted across the forehead. In order to prepare for their arrival and please their visiting souls, families will go to cemeteries to clean graves, perform music, tell jokes, and dance.

Just as the image of skulls plays a major role in celebrating Day of the Dead, the altars erected in the homes of deceased loved ones denote the holidays devotion to honoring the dead. After Mexico won its independence from Spain, the separation of church and state prevailed, but Dia de Muertos still remains as a religious celebration in many parts of rural Mexico. Elsewhere, the important holiday has continued as a popularized celebration of national culture. Schools and museums still exhibit altars and teach children how to cut up colorful paper folk art to represent the wind helping souls make their way home.

Communications Divide these Ghostly Rituals

The similarity in dates between Halloween, which goes back 2,000 years, and Day of the Dead, which stretches back to the Aztecs about 3,000 years ago, coincide with the ancient religious traditions of borrowing from indigenous practices around the globe. Whereas death is a less-talked about subject in the United States, over the centuries the Latino culture have felt it important to create and maintain routine communications between the living and the dead. Interestingly, the most obvious cultural distinction between the two celebrations is that Halloween decorations bring tombs, graveyards, and other ghostly things into the home as holiday decorations. On the other hand, people celebrating Dia de Muertos go to the cemeteries, visit a family member's grave site, and bring items that symbolize life, such as food, flowers, and music. There is however an increasingly large mix of people that celebrate both holidays and both are graced by vibrant visuals, good fellowship, and elaborate costumes designed to accentuate each event.

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