Halloween and Día de los Muertos are two holidays that are commonly associated together, and most people assume they are interchangeable. However, contrary to popular belief, they are two separate holidays that have their own history, significance, and cultural background.
Halloween has a long and extensive history, and its roots can be traced to a nearly 2000-year-old festival called Samhain (pronounced sah-win) to celebrate a new year. The Celts, a group of people that occupied lands stretching from the British Isles to Gallatia, celebrated Samhain on November 1st, a day that marks the end of summers and the harvest, and the beginning of winters. They believed this was the day the line between the living and the dead was at the thinnest level, and the dead were able to visit the Earth.
In the 8th century, the Catholic Church turned Samhain into All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, with November 2nd being recast as All Souls Day. Thus October 31st became All Hallows’ Eve, which was later shortened to Halloween.
Halloween in the United States is now a secular holiday, when people dress in colorful costumes, and children trick-or-treat for candy. Many people carve pumpkins, and haunted houses are popular during this time of the year.
Contrary to the Celtic tradition of Halloween, Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that dates back nearly 3,000 years to the civilizations of Mesoamerica. Once a year, the Aztecs celebrated the lives of their ancestors and honored the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld. They believed their dead preferred to be celebrated rather than mourned, and festivities included special foods, traditional flowers, and other offerings.
The festival lasted nearly a month, starting around the end of July to mid-August to coincide with the time of corn harvests. However when the Spaniards arrived, they brought their Catholic beliefs with them, including All Saints Day. The Spanish priests saw the correlation between the two holidays and moved the Aztec celebration to the fall, so it would correspond with All Saints Day in an attempt to convert the local population. What followed was a unique blend of Mesoamerican and Catholic traditions that continues even today.
Currently, Día de los Muertos is a national holiday in Mexico that takes place on November 1 and 2.While rituals vary from town to town, common celebrations include visiting cemeteries and building alters with the favorite food and drinks of the deceased to encourage the souls to visit. Sugar skulls are commonly associated with Día de los Muertos, as are alters and marigolds.
While the two holidays can trace their history back to All Saints Day, they are two very distinct holidays with their own cultural background and traditions Día de los Muertos is about remembering and celebrating the lives of the dead, while Halloween retains some of the spookiness of Samhain and has transitioned into more of a secular event.