Why Mexico Celebrates Day of the Dead Instead of Halloween
As the western world gears up every year for trick or treaters, one country blends a traditional custom with Catholic influences. While Halloween, more of a British or American tradition (borrowed from Celtics), Day of the Dead celebrations remain celebrations held in Mexico (borrowed from the Aztecs) and places where Mexican families immigrate.
While All Hallow’s Eve, as folks once referred to Halloween, and Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead, are holidays celebrated a day and a nation apart, they share many traditions. Both use images of death in a festive way. Both fill children’s bellies with too much sugar (or not enough if one asks the children.)
To compare the Mexican tradition with the British one, we have to start with the Celtics.
All Saints Day
About 2,00 years ago, the Celtics celebrated something called Samhain, pronounced, “Sah-win.” It was a Gaelic festival for marking the end of the harvest season, which landed about halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice when the Celts braced for the coming winter.
It was a time when they believed the lines between the living and dead blurred. They believed the dead would rise and roam the streets. To keep roaming spirits from entering their homes, the Celts left gifts on their front stoop.
If the living ventured out, they dressed like ghosts to fit in with the spirits. The tradition evolved into going door-to-door in costume, reciting verses or songs.
Homeowners would gift the singers with food, not unlike how folks go door-to-door singing at Christmas. One of these practices, however, evolved into trick or treating the other into caroling.
In the 9th century, the forces of Christianity designated November 1st as All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day. It was a day to give thanks for the saints.
The eve of this day, All Hallows’ Eve, is what evolved into Halloween.
Predating the Celtics by about 1,000 years, the Ancient people of Mexico had long honored the dead as an annual tradition.
The original Aztek celebration was earlier in the year, but with the influences of Christians over the years, Mexico moved the holiday forward in the calendar to line up with All Saint’s Day.
Whereas Halloween is on October 31, the adopted Aztec holiday starts when October ends, lasting until the 2nd day of November.
As did the Aztecs, modern Mexicans believe that at midnight on the 31st of October, the gates of heaven open to let out the spirits of the dead. They can reunite with their families for 24 hours.
Down on terra firma, the people create shrines at grave sites, with offerings called ofrendas. The ofrendas may include candles, flowers, fruit, peanuts, turkey mole, tortillas, nuts, and most importantly, the bread of the dead or Pan de Muertos.
In the modern tradition, some families spend months preparing for the holiday, creating gifts and treats. The goal is prosperity in the coming year. It’s also a good time to clean up the local graveyard.
Dia de Muertos
Some call this day Dia de Los Muertos, as a backward translation of the English version Day of the Dead. The more traditional version is simply, Dia de Muertos.
It’s much less scary than Halloween, even though the two share imagery. In fact, other than similar calendar dates, that’s about where the similarities end.
Not all of Mexico celebrates Dia de Muertos the same. In the northern states, they may observe a quieter version of the day, cleaning graves and remembering the dead, but in the central and southern states, parties may get a wild.
Whole towns gather around cemeteries starting in the early hours of November 1st. Whereas Halloween focuses on being scary, Dia de Muertos is more about reducing the fear of the dead.
“Part of our tradition in Mexico is to not be scared of death and to smile at it,” said Gennaro Garcia on the site azcentral. “It’s a celebration of our ancestors as they were when they were on this earth, alive. It was never a sad thing or a scary thing.”
By November 2, it’s all over. Well, for everyone but the kids. They still have piles of candy to plow through. It seems the two holidays share this much as well: belly aches.