Today Is El Día De Los Muertos: How The Mexican ‘Day Of The Dead’ Differs From Halloween

In the U.S., November 1 is “Eat Your Kids’ Halloween Candy Day,” if you’re a parent, and little else (unless All Saints Day is a part of your faith), but south of the border, our Mexican neighbors celebrate arguably one of the biggest holidays of the year: El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). And though Halloween and El Día de los Muertos share similarities, the two are distinct holidays that are only superficially related to one another.

Rachel Romero, writing for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, notes that El Día de los Muertos is intended to celebrate one’s family members and ancestors who have passed on to the next stage of life. The holiday regards death as just a natural part of life, like birth, adolescence, and growing old. And on The Day of the Dead, the departed are awakened (metaphorically, of course), in order to enjoy the celebration of this one particular aspect of life.

“The cycle of life and death is inevitable so we may as well enjoy our time while we’re living.”

As National Geographic explains, Mexicans believe that to mourn the dead is to insult them, so instead, Mexicans celebrate this day and enjoy parades, parties, drinks, music, and activities that the loved ones enjoyed in life.

The underpinnings of the Día de los Muertos tradition date back to Mexico’s pre-colonial days. Indeed, some aspects of the holiday are rooted in the ancient Mayan religion. Following the arrival of Catholicism to the country in the 16th century, the holiday moved from the summer to coincide with the minor Catholic feast of All Saints Day (celebrated on November 1), and mixed in Catholic traditions along with pre-Christian elements.

Of course, it’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the Day of the Dead and Halloween. Both holidays invoke death and the spirit world, both involve creepy elements such as skeletons and skulls (calacas and calaveras in Spanish), costumes play a prominent role in both holidays, and of course, there’s plenty of candy for the children.

But Halloween is about the macabre — that is, fright plays a role, even if it’s tongue-in-cheek. Where Halloween is about being frightened by the prospect of the dead entering the world of the living, the Day of the Dead celebrates the living joining the world of the dead, and vice-versa.

“Halloween’s images of skeletons and spirits emphasize the spooky, gruesome, and macabre. People scare themselves at the thought of spirits threatening the living world. On Day of the Dead, the focus isn’t on being scared, it’s on celebrating with one’s family—alive and dead—and remembering loved ones.”

And while children (and adults) dress in costumes in both holidays, Day of the Dead costumes aren’t intended for the wearer to be someone else. Rather, the wearer dresses in their Sunday best, but then wears makeup to represent death.

Although El Día de los Muertos is mostly associated with Mexico, it’s also celebrated elsewhere in Central America. And it’s huge in the United States, especially in communities with large Latino populations, such as Southern California and the Southwest U.S. Tucson’s All Souls Procession, for example, brings 150,000 participants to downtown each November.

“Myriad altars, performers, installation art, and creatives of all kinds collaborate for almost half the year to prepare their offerings for this amazing event. The All Souls Procession, and now the entire All Souls Weekend, is a celebration and mourning of the lives of our loved ones and ancestors.”

Today, both Halloween and Day of the Dead are celebrated among Mexican children in both Mexico and the U.S., and in many cases, families are mixing elements of both holidays into new, separate traditions.

[Image via Shutterstock/Atomazul]