Día de los Muertos and Halloween: A celebration of different cultures


Susan Amos, instructor for English philosophy and modern languages

Ofrenda awaiting the return of the loved one it’s dedicated to.

Happy Halloween! ¡Feliz día de los Muertos! With the end of October and the beginning of November, we celebrate the lives of those we love and the traditions of old. Here in the United States and Texas, we observe the different cultural celebrations in regards to death.

Halloween has more recently been attributed to trick-or-treating, pranks  and scary movies. In the words of Max Dennison, Walt Disney’s “Hocus Pocus”, “Everyone here knows that Halloween was invented by the candy companies. It’s a conspiracy.” It’s all just a bunch of hocus pocus one could say. But, the traditions of Halloween date back to as long as 2,000 years ago.

The holiday’s roots can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts would dress in costume, burn bonfires and sacrifice animals to ward off destructive evil spirits. This celebration also marked the end of summer for the tribes.

After the Romans conquered the Celtic areas by 43 A.D., two of the Roman holidays around the same time were combined with Samhain. Feralia was the first holiday where the Romans honored the dead on this day. The second was the honoring of the goddess Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. One of the symbols that represented Pomona was the apple. This incorporation into Samhain is possibly the origin of bobbing for apples. The celebration of All Souls Day, Nov. 2, eventually replaced the holidays.

Fast forward to the mid 19th century, following the colonial transition to the Americas; we start to see a form of the Halloween we know today. Halloween was transformed into more of a community celebration. Parties and trick-or-treating became the norm for the holiday. Trick-or-treating was a way for the entire community to share in the festivities.

But this isn’t the only age-old tradition celebrated in the States. In the Mexican state of Puebla, the people prepare for día de los Muertos. This celebration is the honoring of those that have gone before us. It is not a worshiping of the dead as some have come to believe.

The celebration can be traced back to the Aztecs and different mesoamerican tribes. After the Spanish colonization, the Church allowed different traditions to remain in the communities of people to help the conversion to Christianity. Though mainly celebrated in Mexico, día de los Muertos is celebrated in Central and South America alike. The holiday begins Oct. 31 and ends at midnight of Nov. 2. The celebration honors the loved ones that have passed and will return in spirit one day a year.

Ofrenda, or altars, are built in remembrance of the dead. These altars house pictures and various items that, in life, the deceased loved ones enjoyed. Pan de muerto is baked for both the living and the dead. Orange marigolds, or cempasúchil, paint the streets in beauty. The petals of the flowers are crushed and scattered to guide the spirits back home.

Decorations lie throughout el cementerio or cemetery. Flowers and objects from the departed are placed around neatly-kept gravesites. The epitaph, E.P.D., en paz descanse, rest in peace, is inscribed on the talavera, a ceramic made in Puebla, of the headstone.

In cultures that celebrate día de los Muertos, death is not feared. Skulls decorate the towns, and paintings depict the celebration of life with the inevitability of death.

Though from different cultures, both European and Latin American holidays are very similar. Both involve the honoring of the dead in a way and bring communities together to remember and celebrate our families. We see día de los Muertos celebrations throughout the United States as well. Celebrations in Dallas come to mind. So no, Halloween isn’t all about the candy companies, and día de los Muertos isn’t about worshiping the dead. They’re both “spirited” holidays that show us that death isn’t scary, and life is worth celebrating. So happy Halloween, and feliz día de los Muertos, and please don’t overeat on candy and pan de muerto.