Halloween and the Day of the Dead: two syncretic holidays with great differences and similarities. From the ancient traditions of Celtic and Mesoamerican cultures, to the modern fusion between both celebrations.
Differences and similarities between Halloween and the Day of the Dead
The main difference lies in their origin. However, although they have different cultural and geographical backgrounds, they have surprisingly very similar elements.
The Celtic Samhain
Many people believe that Halloween is American, but it actually comes from the Celtic tradition, ancient peoples who inhabited what is now Ireland, England, Scotland, and France.
It began to be celebrated with the name of Samhain (it means: end of summer). For the Celts, it marked the time when the days became shorter and the nights longer. It signified the start of a New Year and the end of a bountiful harvest season.
They celebrated the farewell of Lugh, god of the Sun, and like many other cultures, they believed that the dead returned to the world of the living, so it was also a time of reflection on death and an opportunity for rebirth. According to the book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers, Samhain was a time of balance and sacrifice, possibly including animal sacrifice, and communities prepared to survive the winter.
The Aztec Festival of the Dead
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they found that the natives celebrated rituals with which, apparently, they “mocked” death. Horrified, they tried to vanish this practice, but they did not succeed. Manuel Alberro, author of the book, The Christian Day of the Dead and the Day of the Dead in Mexico, explains that the Aztec people honored their dead in August and worshiped Mictecacihuatl, Lady of Mictlan, Queen of Chignahmictlan, the Ninth Level of the World Underground. “The Aztecs kept skulls as trophies, and displayed them during these annual rituals. Skulls symbolized death and rebirth. They were used to honor the deceased, who were believed to return to this world to visit them during this month-long festival. Unlike the Spaniards, who considered death to be the end, the Mexicans saw it as a continuation of life”, the book points out.
From Samhain to Halloween
After Rome conquered most of the Celtic lands, the pagan tradition was reformulated with a Christian narrative. In the year 601 AD, Pope Gregory tried to make this date the All Saints’ Day, dedicated to the Christian martyrs.
Thus, All Saints’ Day was strategically moved to November 1st, making it coincide with Samhain. They called it All-hallows or All-hallow’s Eve which in Middle English means “the eve of all saints”. Eventually, over time, it became Halloween and turned to be more popular than the liturgical day. It was brought to the United States by the huge number of Irish who immigrated to that country during the nineteenth century.
All Saints’ Day in Mexico
As with Samhain, the Aztec Festival of the Dead was considered sacrilegious by European clergymen. They wanted to suppress it, but it was impossible.
Instead of eradicating it, they assimilated it, trying to impose All Saints’ Day. The native peoples incorporated elements of their own celebration. Gradually it became a unique and very complex ritual that today is known as the Day of the Dead.
Items and offerings on Halloween
The offerings of food and goods to ward off the ancestral spirits and ghosts of Samhain became offerings of food and drink to the poor on All Saints’ Day and resulted in Halloween dishes and sweets.
The pumpkin with the lantern refers to the Irish legend of Jack-o’-Lantern, where the light of the candle illuminates the path of a man condemned to wander as a spirit for all eternity. Disguises were used to confuse and drive ghosts away. The skulls and skeletons were reminders of this time that we will all go through.
Elements and offerings on the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead offerings also come from ancient pre-Hispanic ceremonies. For the Aztecs, the soul of the loved one survived and still had many material attributes. So they had to feed themselves: drink water and even use weapons. Copal and burning incense were placed to guide the deceased on their way and purify the space from evil beings. The skulls were a reminder that death, sooner or later, comes for us.
The union of Halloween and the Day of the Dead
In recent years, the tradition of Halloween and the Day of the Dead have been intermingled due to the proximity of Mexico and the United States. The films and the cultural exchange between the two nations have led to the adoption of elements of both celebrations.
Finally, both traditions are the product of cultural syncretism. It is important to mention that due to its complexity and richness, the Day of the Dead is registered as Cultural and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
What tradition do you celebrate the most? Day of the Dead or Halloween.
Translated by: Ligia Mabel Oliver Manrique de Lara