The Origins of Dia de los Muertos and Halloween

Each year, in the end of October and the beginning of November, Dia de los Muertos and Halloween celebrations coincide.  Both holidays involve costumes, treats and an abundance of death imagery. Interestingly enough, that is where the similarities between the two end.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people.  To these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum and they believed that mourning the loss of their loved ones was inappropriate and disrespectful.  In these cultures, the dead are still considered members of the community, and during Día de los Muertos, their spirits are invited by friends and family members to return to the land of the living.  Today’s Día de los Muertos celebrations are a combination of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2, which are known as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar.

Dia de los Muertos celebrations are rich in tradition and symbolic meaning.  Men and Women dress up as skeletons, or, Calacas, signifying that we are all the same underneath.  Classic Catrina costumes are made up of ornate dresses or suits, headdresses of bright flowers and ribbons, or vibrant sombreros, and intricate skeletal makeup.  In order to entice their relative’s spirits to return, families build altars called ofrendas including pictures of the deceased. Ofrendas are adorned with decorations, and flowers, particularly Marigolds.  Families also prepare an abundance of their loved one’s favorite foods, as it is believed that these souls would be famished from their long journey home.

Contrary to the welcoming festivities of Dia de los Muertos, Halloween celebrations began as an attempt to ward off ghosts and evil spirits.  Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic people over 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France.  The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.

Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. This was known as the Festival of Samhain, and was observed on the night of October 31, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth.  To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints; soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain in an attempt to give the church control over these rituals, which were then viewed as pagan.  All Saints Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, which was derived from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day. Thus, the night before Samhain became All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, in colonial America annual harvest festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet widely celebrated.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, specifically the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.  Thus, a new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow, evolving into the holiday we celebrate today. Today, Halloween is a day of activities such as trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, community gatherings, and donning costumes.  Currently, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.

However you choose to celebrate the changing of the seasons, MyRespects hopes you enjoy sharing your cultural traditions and making new memories with the ones you love.


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