Those Garza Blanca Residence Club members who have visited Mexico between the end of October and the beginning of November will know that the Day of the Dead (el Día de Muertos), celebrated by most Mexicans on November 2nd, is a hugely significant date. This holiday in the Mexican calendar affects the whole country; stores are filled with decorative skulls, even sugar skulls for eating, and all over the country altars are set up in honour of the dead. At a surface level the similarities between Halloween and the Day of the Dead seem rather obvious however there are some key differences that illustrate the fascinating results of colonization upon traditional practices.
What are the similarities?
The time of year when these festivals occur is the most obvious similarity. Halloween is, of course, held on the October 31st and the Day of the Dead, depending upon where you are in Mexico, will be either a one or two day festival starting on November 1st or 2nd. Other than the chronological overlap, both holidays focus on the idea that there is a certain time of year when the spirits of the dead may walk the earth again taking pagan practices and integrating them with Christian holy days.
What are the differences?
Firstly there is a major difference in the way the dead are regarded during each of these festivals. Halloween focuses upon the grisly or frightening aspects of death and the dead while the Day of the Dead is very much a celebration of their lives, a happy occasion to honor and remember loved ones who have passed on.
The European tradition of Halloween notes that All-Hallows eve is a dangerous night when malicious spirits walk the earth. The pumpkins and costumes are to frighten evil spirits away from the cautious living. In Mexico, however, the visiting spirits are believed to be loved ones returning to see their families and are, in turn, treated with a lot of respect by their living descendants.
The festivals differ also in their roots. Halloween or All Hallows eve does, like el Día de Muertos, come from the Christian tradition of the All Saints and Souls Days of November 1st and 2nd. But it came from the European pagan holiday of the same time which celebrated the passing of the New Year after the harvest and just before the annual hibernation of animals. When the Romans began their expansion throughout Europe, these traditions were married to their own.
In contrast, El Día de Muertos comes originally from the Aztec festival which honored the Queen of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl, and her husband Mictlantechuhtli throughout a month-long ritual. After the Spanish conquest, the month festivities were reduced to the 2 days of All-Hallows and the Aztec queen is represented today by the Calavera Catrina – a skeleton dressed in fine clothing.
What happens during the Day of the Dead?
While in the USA and Europe children dress up and go trick or treating, in Mexico altars are erected all over the country, both in public places and in homes. These altars are adorned with pictures of dead loved ones surrounded by flowers, the deceased’s favorite food and drink and candles. These items have purpose and meaning; the food and drink, along with the ‘dead bread’ (pan de muerto) is intended to give the dead enough energy to make the return journey to the underworld and the candles are to light their path. At this time, cemeteries will be full of families having small parties with music and food while they visit their ancestors’ graves; musicians will be invited and people will drink tequila in honor of the dead.
So, next time you plan to visit Mexico using your Garza Blanca Residence Club membership, why not catch the Day of the Dead? You could even attend one of the many public festivals that take place at this time!