As a Mexican American living in Texas, I was told the beginning of November was a sad time on many occasions. It was sad because many saw the start of November as a time to grieve—to grieve the absence of spooky objects and skulls but get ready for the feast to come.
However, this time of the year for those in Mexican culture is significant, and though many may see skulls and death, it is not related to anything regarding a late Halloween. The first and second of November is in fact not scary nor gory, but instead a holiday called Día de los Muertos.
Día de los Muertos--Day of the Dead in English--is a religious holiday, derived from Spanish Catholicism mixed with Aztec rituals. Ivan Roman wrote in 2020 for the History website that the Day of the Dead had, “the Latin American indigenous traditions and symbols to honor the dead fused with non-official Catholic practices and notions of an afterlife.”
This fusion of death and celebration differs extremely from the adrenaline rush many Americans get from walking through a haunted house. In a Halloween setting, many fear the dead and are frightened at the idea of spirits roaming your home, but in Día de los Muertos, these “ghosts” are necessary for the celebration.
Though Halloween did originate from Celtic religious roots, an article from Our Community Now writes, “The belief was that the spirits of those who had departed would return on this night—a haunting, of sorts—causing damage and fright, as well as connecting with the Druid priests, making it easier on this night for them to predict the future.”
One major difference between the two holidays many don’t see until they truly open their eyes are the colors. Halloween decor is traditionally dark, with orange and black hues invading the homes of terror-loving people. Meanwhile, for Día de los Muertos, the colors are on the opposite side of the spectrum. There are red, blue, pink, yellow and other colorful hues to symbolize the beauty of life and what those who lived through it brought to the world at one point.
If we look closely at the symbols embedded in Día de los Muertos, we see the likeness of skulls and death. In hindsight, it does relate to Halloween decor we see on the Target shelves but the meaning behind these symbolism means more than a spooky fright.
In 2019, The Smithsonian Magazine defined six important objects for a traditional altar. In the article, the writer quotes a Guadalajara artisan who specializes in sugar skulls for the traditional altars.
“The skulls represent the people who have passed and who are receiving offerings at the altar,” says Silvia Natalia Islas, a well-known artisan. “The sugar symbolizes the sweetness of life.”
This sweetness of life directly disagrees with the haunted terror we feel that comes with Halloween. In the jack-o-lantern holiday we fear the afterlife and see only the terror ghosts and ghouls can bring to the living world.
Another thing defined in the article is the altar and photographs. The traditional altars previously mentioned are called ofrendas in Spanish.
In an article written in USC Annenberg Media it says, “One of the most important traditions of (Día de los Muertos) is the preparation of ofrendas (altars) to honor loved ones who have passed away as they make their journey to Earth.”
These ofrendas are meant to hold the pictures of those in your life who have died and the offerings you give them for returning to our world. Each altar will look different, but all have the same concept and tokens to welcome the dead.
Also seen throughout Día de los Muertos is the marigold flower (or the flor de muerto in Spanish.) This flower signifies the welcoming of souls and guides them to our world. While bread of the dead (pan de muerto) allows those souls to relieve their hunger after their journey from the afterlife.
These things and more are all meaningful in the holiday of Día de los Muertos and separate it from Halloween. In Mexican culture there is not a 32 days of Halloween special, only the two-day long celebration for those in your life who you have loved and lost.
William Cummings writes in a USA Today article, “the holiday is more a time to celebrate their memories than to mourn their loss.” In the 2017 article, Cummings goes on to explain how in America, many try to avoid the notion of death and instead get rid of the ritualization that happens in Mexico.
The Halloween decor and hauntings are over once November hits and those who celebrate Día de los Muertos honor the life our loved ones lived.