AP Photo/Marco Ugarte
Candles light up graves in the San Gregorio cemetery during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, Mexico early Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009. According to tradition, candles are lit to guide wandering souls back to their families.

Indigenous Origins of the Day of the Dead, Versus Halloween

Steve Russell

El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is not Halloween, although Halloween introduces it on the calendar and putting the two together would result in three days of costumed revelry and sweets for children, October 31 to November 2.

The holidays, except for proximity on the calendar, have little in common.

Halloween is a very old tradition, about 2,000 years old, born as Samhain among the Celts, who believed that the dead returned on November 1, and so would light bonfires, hide behind costumes, and make sacrifices to deities for protection.  Druid priests would commune with the dead to divine the future.

The Roman Catholic Church, unable to shut down the observance, expanded the feast of All Martyrs Day to All Saints Day and moved it from May 13 to November 1.  The celebration was similar to Samhain, with bonfires and people dressing up as angels and devils.

All Saints was also called in Middle English Alholowmesse, which became All Hallows Day, making the night before All Hallows Eve or Halloween.

Begun as a religious observance, with Christian religion co-opting pagan religion, Halloween is now the second most commercial holiday in terms of money spent, behind only Christmas, another holiday syncretized by the Roman Catholic Church with pagan rituals and gone more commercial than sacred in modern times.

The Day of the Dead is half again older than Halloween and a tradition indigenous to the Americas. The observance of the return of the dead once occupied the entire month of August, but the Roman Catholic Church was able to squeeze it into November 2 and 3, to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the latter being the closest in concept to El Dia de los Muertos, because on that day the devout are tasked to pray for the souls of the dead.

The indigenous observance remains around a home altar, the offrenda, where the spirits of dead children, angelitos, visit with their families for 24 hours on November 1, and are welcomed with sweets and toys. On November 2, the adult dead are offered tobacco and alcoholic beverages.  The living move the party to cemeteries, where they clean the graves and leave flowers to the tune of festive music.

RELATED: Day of the Dead, Part I: Honoring the Departed, Celebrating Life, in Mexico

Halloween was born of fear, and the customs around it involved placating the spirits of the dead for the safety of the living.

The indigenous American tradition was born of celebration, a reunion with those who have walked on, and recognition of death as part of a natural cycle, nothing to be feared.  The tradition is much older than the Aztec Empire, which is where the Spanish found it.

Day of the Dead celebrations are moving up from the Mexican border, like tacos, conjunto music, tequila. Culture seldom observes lines on a map, but meanings are often diluted.

RELATED: Day of the Dead, Part II: Re-Made in America

Should El Dia de los Muertos take the commercial path of Halloween, we will see mass-produced sugar skeletons, pre-fabricated offrendas, and an excuse to extend Halloween partying for two more days and bring in more adults.

We will have lost a deeply personal holiday that has historically brought families together across generations to help youngsters understand who they are, who they have come from, and where they are going in the natural order of things.

The thought of putting a price on that is really scary.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
My mother's side of my family observes El Dia de los Muertos, but my immediate family never did. It's a wonderful holiday that allows one to reconnect with family and friends that have walked on. Many White, retirees who have moved into my hometown find it bizzare that we gather to party with our dead, but what better time to reminisce, tell old stories and fill the younger generations in on what their great, grandparents were like and who they were. Of course, modern times are watering this tradition down and it's becoming more about zombies and graveyards than visiting family that has died.

marctibo's picture
Submitted by marctibo on
Dear Steve, I would like to correct a few statements you have made in your comparison of All Hallows and El Dìa de los Muertos. And perhaps through this you might recognize how close (and probably related) these traditions are. When you mention Celts and Druids, you enter a period of history of significance but poorly understood. Everything that has been reported about the Celts and the Druids comes from "outsiders", whether traditional or Christianized Greeks and Romans, who, like the Westerners entering the Turtle Island described what they were seeing through the lens of their limited cultural and historical knowledge. However, these historians provided information that we are now able to better interpret, the rest is up for us to imagine. This special date happened to fall in between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It also happened to coincide with the last harvest before the long winter (according to their own calendar). The one element that every historian of this period seems to agree to is that the Celts lived their life as if this earthly world, the underworld and the upper world were one and indivisible, which included of course the spirit world. So, celebrating the dead would equate more to celebrating their ancestors and their spirit allies, and since their knowledge and understanding of the world were passed on orally, very little remains of their rituals. And no, this tradition was not born out of fear. For people (men and women) known to go to battle naked to whom dying for the sacrifice of their land and people was of the highest honor, it does not make much sense to fear the spirit world. At the very opposite, they probably approached this tradition with the greatest reverence. The idea that Druids were making sacrifices is now questioned. Modern historians believe that the Romans needed to portray the Celts/ Gauls as bloody barbarians. There is no or very little evidence Druids practiced human sacrifices. In some cases, they would not take prisoners and would happily massacre their enemies. However, there is plenty of evidence they made offerings. Sincerely, Marc