The Day of the Dead or Dia De Los Muertos holiday has some similarities to Halloween mostly because of the skull and skeleton related costumes. These two celebrations are often mistaken to be the same thing but there are quite a few very distinct differences.
So, how is Dia De Los Muertos different from Halloween? Halloween originated in the United Kingdom as a pagan tradition where people would gather around large bonfires, dress in costumes, and perform ceremonies to ward off evil spirits. Dia De Los Muertos is a celebration of the dead in Mexican culture to remember lost loved ones and friends.
Halloween is also called All Saints Day and many people celebrate both Day of the Dead and Halloween. I’ll explore the differences between these two celebrations and how they are often confused to be the same.
Halloween began from Gaelic people in the United Kingdom and was a seasonal holiday originally called Samhain. It is one of four seasonal holidays observed in pagan tradition.
These holidays were often related to the different seasonal harvesting of crops and preparing the necessary provisions for the coming winter. During the celebration people would gather around large bonfires, dress in costumes, and perform ceremonies to ward off evil spirits.
Dia De Los Muertos was originally an ancient Aztec tradition from South American that includes similarities to other cultures such as Hinduism. It is celebrated predominantly in Mexican culture as a remembrance of the dead. But rather than mourning the dead it is celebration of life of lost loved ones and friends
Halloween is universally celebrated on Oct. 31st every year whereas the Day of the Dead holiday is celebrated from Nov. 1st to Nov. 2nd every year.
What people did on Halloween (Samhain):
The Celts in the United Kingdom would hold a ritual on the evening of October 31st which is the midpoint between Autumn and Winter. This is considered a transition period to the oncoming colder weather and was believed during this time the communication between this world and the afterlife was more open.
This was a celebration of the final harvest of the year as preparing for winter has come to an end. They would leave their homes and light a large bonfire, dress in costumes, and a priest or shaman would perform rituals and prayers. They would carry back flames from the bonfire to use to light new fires in their homes. To hopefully ward of evil spirts.
Much later, the Samhain name was changed to reflect Christian traditions, to celebrate the saints of Christianity. This became known as All Saints Day, another name for it was All Hallows Day.
The night before All Saints Day was often referred to as All Hallows Eve and over time became referred to as Halloween. Of course, as we all know, it has been greatly commercialized now with expensive costumes, parties, and trick or treating.
Dia De Los Muertos involves celebrating people who have passed away. In Aztec culture they do not grieve the dead on this day. It was treated as a time of joy, and celebration. They believed that people are eternal, and that life doesn’t end with death.
To celebrate Dia De Los Muertos people will create an altar in their home for people close to them who have died. They will usually put a photo of them in the centre and place flowers, gifts, and food.
There is much dancing, activities, food, and of course sugar skulls. It is most common for people will dress up like skeletons to represent the dead. Sugar skull or Calavera face makeup is also very popular.
The history behind both is fragmented and difficult to put together. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain which came first since there is conflicting dates around when the Aztec people first began observing it, as well as when Samhain was first celebrated
If we take the creation of All Saints Day by the Pope as accurate that would mean that Samhain was observed before the year 609. The Aztecs culture was also around long before the year 1300. These are both quite ancient traditions that have been around an exceptionally long time, but there is no concrete evidence to suggest which came first.
Halloween is derived from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. It was a day observed on the Winter solstice in the United Kingdom as a day of transition from Autumn to Winter. It was the last day of harvest to prepare for the coming winter and people would gather around a large bonfire to ward off evil spirts.
It was believed during this time of year the veil separating us from the afterlife was withdrawn and it was easier to communicate with the spirits. There were thought to be evil spirits which would also come out during this time. Because of this people would dress in costumes to disguise themselves.
They would often dress in elaborate costumes of animals or beasts hoping to not only disguise themselves but to also ward off evil spirits.
Both Halloween and the Day of the Dead had similar origins, in that they observe the transition from Autumn and Winter. They both believe that during this time there is heightened spiritual activity.