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Day of the Dead or Halloween, the Reality of a Shared Tradition

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Around October 31 and November 1, a lot of people tend to get nationalistic in Mexico regarding the difference between the celebrations of the Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos) and Halloween. But what if I tell you how popular is these days to set up an offering altar for the day of the dead in the States?

It is widely known mexicans make fun of dead in every opportunity they have. And it is also said that “chicano” community allies with dead to laugh of “gringos”, but in the markets, in the offerings, in the stores and department stores across Mexico a ghost always floats: the ghost of Halloween.

Both the Day of the Dead and Halloween have common origins but very different social functions. To be able to analyze it without prejudices we will have to know first the history behind both holidays, and how these have transformed through the years.

Photographs were taken at a public cemetery during The Day of The Dead celebrations in San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, or All Souls' Day, is a holiday celebrated all over the world in honor of our beloved deceased. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died.  In Mexico, El Día de los Muertos is actually a celebration of life. The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Mexican or Aztec, Maya, P'urhépecha, and Totonac. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2500-3000 years. In most regions of Mexico, November 1 honors children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2 by taunting them in their grave. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as "Día de los Inocentes" (Day of the Innocents) but also as "Día de los Angelitos" (Day of the Little Angels) and November 2 as "Día de los Muertos" or "Día de los Difuntos" (Day of the Dead).  The Day of the Dead celebration occurs on the 2nd of November in connection with the Catholic holiday of All Saints' Day which occurs on Nov 1st and All Souls' Day which occurs on Nov 2nd. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Similar holidays are celebrated in many parts of the world; it's a public holiday (Dia de Finados) in Brazil, where many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their loved ones who have died. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe and in the Philippines, and similar celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures. (LA76)

Almost without exception, Mexicans (and a lots of foreigners as well) think that Día de los Muertos is a pure Mexican tradition that should remain intact, far from Halloween, trying to forget the old and ancient relationship between Mexico and the States. Some come, some go, merchandise and ideas move on both territories, as an untraceable quantity of signs that make the imaginary collective even more complex.

Halloween is a holiday that surfaced as we know it today in the United States, and today is related with plenty of commercial activity: massive costume sales, candies, horror movies and any other kind of exotic and dark paraphernalia related to death and “the world of the dead”. However, it’s origins trace back to the Celts and Druids (in France, Ireland, The U.K. and part of Spain), who in the last days of October (Oct 31 to Nov 2), celebrated “Samhain” or the end of the summer and the start of winter, a time of the year related back then to the dead of people due to cold weather.

Halloween shares dates with “Día de los Muertos”, because it was believed that in these dates the boundaries between live and dead blurred. Spirits wandered, and the entrances of houses had vegetables carved with scary faces to keep away the bad spirits. Because of tradition, people visited each house in the community and gave away food in exchange of praying for the souls. Streets used to get filled with candles to guide good spirits, and the people used costumes to disguise from the evil spirits.

Photographs were taken at a public cemetery during The Day of The Dead celebrations in San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, or All Souls' Day, is a holiday celebrated all over the world in honor of our beloved deceased. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died.  In Mexico, El Día de los Muertos is actually a celebration of life. The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Mexican or Aztec, Maya, P'urhépecha, and Totonac. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2500-3000 years. In most regions of Mexico, November 1 honors children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2 by taunting them in their grave. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as "Día de los Inocentes" (Day of the Innocents) but also as "Día de los Angelitos" (Day of the Little Angels) and November 2 as "Día de los Muertos" or "Día de los Difuntos" (Day of the Dead).  The Day of the Dead celebration occurs on the 2nd of November in connection with the Catholic holiday of All Saints' Day which occurs on Nov 1st and All Souls' Day which occurs on Nov 2nd. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Similar holidays are celebrated in many parts of the world; it's a public holiday (Dia de Finados) in Brazil, where many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their loved ones who have died. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe and in the Philippines, and similar celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures. (LA76)

Christians, always syncretic, grouped Samhain and started to call it “All Hallow’s Eve” or “All Saints Eve”, where a mass service was given in honor of the dead. Popular culture in The United Kingdom and Ireland continued the tradition to celebrate Hallowe’en on the night of October 31st, and here is where a lot of legends’ manners and traditions surfaced: the carved pumpkins, the costume and the famous “trick or treat”. Time after, this tradition traveled over the Atlantic and not only settled but flourished in the States.

Now getting back to Mexico, where the cult of the death is one of it’s more cultural characteristics. Origins go back to pre-columbian era, where in the ancient Mexican beliefs, the soul of men was immortal, and depending on which way the person died, they would go to specific places of the underworld (Omeyocan- for those killed in combat; Tlallocan- for the water-related dead; Mictlan- for those dead by natural causes). Those died by natural cause, had to travel a long 4 year journey to Mictlan. They where buried with a dog to be their companion in the trip and most of their belongings, useful for the long journey to Mictlan.

In the 10th month, ancient Mexicans celebrated “Ueymicaihuitl”, when they remembered the dead. When the Spaniard Colonization arrived, Cristianism again applied its very own syncretism to this festivity, transforming it into “Día de los Muertos”, on November 1st and 2nd, together with the “Día de Todos los Santos”.

Colorful Mexican sculls designed for the celebrations of the Day of the Dead (El Día de Los Muertos). (Romana Lilic/LA76)

Today “Día de los Muertos” is not an exclusive religious celebration, even completely non-religious groups set up offerings and altars to remember the dead. And let’s keep in mind that in Mexico each element of the altar has a symbolic and specific function: Candles- to guide the dead; Cempasuchitl flower- to symbolize light and glory; “Pan de Muerto” (Traditional sweet bread of Dia de los Muertos)- food and to remember the corporal remains; and Copal- to indicate solemnity and the openness to the mystic world.

Reality is Mexican traditions for the Day of the Dead and Halloween have merged because of globalization and intercultural exchange. For many, one represent resistance and the other dominance. However, Mexican offerings integrate more and more Halloween elements; media and marketing have done the same. Globalization and Halloween undermine the ancient Mexican cultural heritage? We don’t believe that, and at the same time we don’t consider them that antagonistic. Both are different forms of showing tribute and respect to death and the dead; they both celebrate the only possible certainty of humans: Death.

Colorful Mexican sculls designed for the celebrations of the Day of the Dead (El Día de Los Muertos). (Romana Lilic/LA76)

Ironic or not, every year it is more and more common to see traditional “Día de los Muertos” offerings in the United States. Both celebrations complement each other. More pumpkins in Mexico and more “Pan de Muerto” in California. And while Mexicans are the ones who take away their traditions, these are not rare to get popular like tacos, mariachi, and so on… Traditions are open to time: they generate new aesthetics with orange and purple colors, paper decorations and costume parties with tequila. Popular culture is alive, and that’s why it constantly changes.


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  1. By Escapes Magazine » Blog Archive » Day of the Dead or Halloween, the Reality of a Shared Tradition 3 Nov ’11 at 2:44 pm

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