Club Caribe members who have visited Mexico at the end of October through the beginning of November before will know that the Day of the Dead (el Día de Muertos) on November 2 is a hugely significant date in the Mexican calendar. Stores are peppered with colorful skulls (even candy ones!) and altars are set up in honor of the dearly departed in both public locations as well as homes. On the surface, the similarities between the Day of the Dead and Halloween seem obvious, yet culturally there are some key differences which provide fascinating insight into the nature of colonization and how traditions merge and become diluted over time.
How are Halloween and the Day of the Dead similar?
Firstly, death is the central theme for both Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Whereas Halloween draws attention to the fearsome and gruesome nature of death, Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a celebration of the lives of those who have died. The time of year when these festivals are celebrated also coincide, Halloween being marked on October 31 while the Day of the Dead is generally celebrated on November 2 (although in some parts of Mexico it is a two day celebration that begins on November 1).
Interestingly enough, these dates reference the Christian festivals of All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2, which were known as All-Hallows, hence October 31 being All Hallows Eve, becoming Hallowe’en. In Christian tradition, Halloween was when the bad spirits would come out to play before the holy festival, bringing with it the tradition of dressing up as ghouls and lighting candles in pumpkins to frighten away any bad spirits.
Pagan and Aztec Influences
Despite the fact that both Halloween and the Day of the Dead are celebrated around the dates of the Christian festival of All Hallows, what is perhaps more fascinating is how ancient pagan customs were incorporated under the guise of a religious festival. Historically, Halloween was a Celtic Festival celebrated by communities throughout the British Isles and France to usher in the New Year on November 1 after the harvest time and the start of hibernation for animals. At this time, the world of the living and dead were supposed to merge allowing those who had died to return to earth. With the Roman conquest, this pagan festival was integrated into the festival known as All Hallows.
In a similar way, the Day of the Dead was a response to the Aztec traditions that honored the Queen of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl who ruled with her husband Mictlantechuhtli and is represented by the modern figure known as the Calavera Catrina – a skeleton dressed in fine clothing. Rituals to remember dead ancestors such as those performed by the Aztecs were part of indigenous traditions dating more than 2000 years before the Spanish conquest and were originally performed over a month long period. When the Spanish took control, these rituals, like those of the Celts in Europe, were integrated into the Christian traditions of All Hallows.
What Happens on the Day of the Dead?
Whereas on Halloween children dress up as fiendish characters and go trick or treating, on the Day of the Dead in Mexico, altars are erected with photographs of deceased members of the family, surrounded by flowers, candles and the dead relatives’ favorite food and drink. The idea is that dead loved ones will visit during this time, eat and drink before returning to the underworld. The food is to make sure they have enough energy to return and the candles are to make sure they can see their way. A special kind of sweet bread is made too, called pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and left on the altar. Cemeteries in Mexico are also usually packed during this time with families visiting graves, even having parties, inviting musicians and drinking tequila in honor of the dead.
So, next time you go trick or treating, take a moment to think about Mexico preparing for the Day of the Dead with altars and bread for the deceased. Why not use your Club Caribe membership to visit during this time next year for a cultural infusion?!