Ghosts, witches and trick-or-treaters — these are the symbols of Halloween. A day when we’re aware of the spirits and we know they’re intentions are, at best, mischievous. We celebrate by dressing in costumes and giving out candy.
Spirits of the dead, candy skulls, tequila and favorite foods — these are the key ingredients when honoring the dead on Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. A day that celebrates those who have passed on.
In one we’re terrified of our dead and in the other we honor them. Don’t believe me?
Ask an American to visit a graveyard with you on October 31st and then ask a Mexican or Mexican American to visit the graveyard on November 2nd, the respective days for each holiday.
If you had asked me, however, my answer would be a resounding “no.” I have never celebrated Dia de los Muertos before but in becoming more aware of it, will this year.
How to Celebrate the Day of the Dead
Many traditions include building private altars for the dead in one’s home and decorating it with a picture of the deceased (if one is available), sugar skulls, marigolds, their favorite foods and drinks, as well as, visiting their graves with gifts.
The holiday occurs on November 1 and 2 due to the connection with the Catholic holidays: All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.
In some parts of Mexico, November 1st celebrates infants and children and is referred to as Dia de los Inocentes or Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Innocents or Day of the Little Angels). While, November 2nd is reserved for Dia de los Muertos.
The history of this celebration has been linked as far back to an Aztec festival for Mictecacihuatl. She was the Lady of the Dead and her role was to watch over their bones.
The Celts believed that the border between the spirit world and our’s blurred during Samhain, which allowed both harmful and harmless spirits in to our world. Families would honor their ancestor’s spirits but to ward off the harmful spirits they would dress in costumes and masks.
Trick-or-treating came into play in the Middle Ages when the poor would go door to door on November 1, Hallowmas, receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Soul’s Day (November 2nd).
As Scottish, Irish and British immigrants came to United States so did the celebration of Halloween. Costumes became popular in the U.S. in the 1930s when trick-or-treating was rising in popularity.
Today’s Celebration of Halloween
As Halloween evolved it became commercialized so much that I would argue that many of us have forgotten the origin of the holiday, or didn’t even know it at all. Instead, we’re reminded of Halloween when we walk into the stores as we hastily purchase an expensive yet cheaply-made costume, candy for the trick-or-treaters and pumpkins to carve into jack-o’-lanterns.
I’m not advocating that we stop celebrating Halloween, only that if you do, to stop and think about its origins. For example, why is it called a jack-o’-lantern?
Celebrating Dia de los Muertos
This Mexican holiday has also evolved over the years from its original Aztec festivities to a modified holiday touched by the Catholic religion. Nonetheless, the appeal to celebrate our dead this Fall is appealing and I encourage you to celebrate your loved ones with me this year.
Want to Learn More?
Check out great festivals, crafts and other ways to celebrate Day of the Dead if you’re in the Valley.
If you’re not, check your local newspapers for festivals, but also check back here as I’ll also be trying my hand at some crafts, foodstuffs and making an altar. I’ll post instructions on how you can do these fun activities too.