Indigenous Origins of the Day of the Dead, Versus Halloween


El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is not Halloween, although Halloween introduces it on the calendar and putting the two together would result in three days of costumed revelry and sweets for children, October 31 to November 2.

The holidays, except for proximity on the calendar, have little in common.

Halloween is a very old tradition, about 2,000 years old, born as Samhain among the Celts, who believed that the dead returned on November 1, and so would light bonfires, hide behind costumes, and make sacrifices to deities for protection. Druid priests would commune with the dead to divine the future.

The Roman Catholic Church, unable to shut down the observance, expanded the feast of All Martyrs Day to All Saints Day and moved it from May 13 to November 1. The celebration was similar to Samhain, with bonfires and people dressing up as angels and devils.

All Saints was also called in Middle English Alholowmesse, which became All Hallows Day, making the night before All Hallows Eve or Halloween.

Begun as a religious observance, with Christian religion co-opting pagan religion, Halloween is now the second most commercial holiday in terms of money spent, behind only Christmas, another holiday syncretized by the Roman Catholic Church with pagan rituals and gone more commercial than sacred in modern times.

The Day of the Dead is half again older than Halloween and a tradition indigenous to the Americas. The observance of the return of the dead once occupied the entire month of August, but the Roman Catholic Church was able to squeeze it into November 2 and 3, to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the latter being the closest in concept to El Dia de los Muertos, because on that day the devout are tasked to pray for the souls of the dead.

The indigenous observance remains around a home altar, the offrenda, where the spirits of dead children, angelitos, visit with their families for 24 hours on November 1, and are welcomed with sweets and toys. On November 2, the adult dead are offered tobacco and alcoholic beverages. The living move the party to cemeteries, where they clean the graves and leave flowers to the tune of festive music.

RELATED: Day of the Dead, Part I: Honoring the Departed, Celebrating Life, in Mexico

Halloween was born of fear, and the customs around it involved placating the spirits of the dead for the safety of the living.

The indigenous American tradition was born of celebration, a reunion with those who have walked on, and recognition of death as part of a natural cycle, nothing to be feared. The tradition is much older than the Aztec Empire, which is where the Spanish found it.

Day of the Dead celebrations are moving up from the Mexican border, like tacos, conjunto music, tequila. Culture seldom observes lines on a map, but meanings are often diluted.

RELATED: Day of the Dead, Part II: Re-Made in America

Should El Dia de los Muertos take the commercial path of Halloween, we will see mass-produced sugar skeletons, pre-fabricated offrendas, and an excuse to extend Halloween partying for two more days and bring in more adults.

We will have lost a deeply personal holiday that has historically brought families together across generations to help youngsters understand who they are, who they have come from, and where they are going in the natural order of things.

The thought of putting a price on that is really scary.

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