The two annual events originated in different parts of the world, and they differ greatly in tone.
Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, has its roots in the ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, which was celebrated on the night of October 31. The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, believed that the dead returned to earth on Samhain. They burned bonfires and wore masks to ward off ghosts.
The theme of Dia de los Muertos is also death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, Central America, and parts of the United States, revelers paint their faces like skeletons, wear costumes, hold festivals and parades, and make offerings to lost loved ones.
At its core, the holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life. Dia de los Muertos originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For those pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in the circle of life. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Dias de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.
The holiday is actually spread over two days, November 1 and 2. November 1 is Dia de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. Graves are decorated with white orchids and baby’s breath. November 2 is Dia del los Muertos, honoring adults, whose graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds.
Marigolds are scattered from altar to gravesite. With their strong scent and vibrant color, the petals make a path that leads the spirits from the cemetery to their families’ homes.
Every ofrenda also include the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst.
And candles are burned for fire. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.
Then the party begins, with food, music and storytelling. Nobody tells ghost stories though. Most of the tales are humorous remembrances of loved ones.
If this tradition seems rather macabre, you may be surprised by nt week's post. Turns out, graveside lounging used to be all the fashion in the United States. I’ll tell you why Americans picnicked in cemeteries next week.
Until then…Happy Samhain!
And a festive Dia de los Muertos!