The Day of the Dead vs. Halloween

Updated on October 7, 2019
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New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and other Latin American countries include surreal face paintings
Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and other Latin American countries include surreal face paintings | Source

Remembering the Saints and Martyrs

Sometime back in the early years of the first millennium, it was a very dangerous thing to be a Christian. This was especially true if you lived in the thriving city of Rome, for in this place, true believers might find themselves easy entertainment for thousands of rabid spectators or a quick snack for a few hungry, half-starved felines.

Due to the persuasive efforts of Constantine the Great, this situation did not last long. By the fifth century, the city of Rome had converted to Christianity. As a result, the new Christians were more than eager to honor the many saints and martyrs who had given their lives to help establish a new church in Rome. At first, every saint and martyr had his (or her) own day, but as the numbers grew, the church decided to devote one day to all the saints and martyrs.

The Creation of All Saints' Day

Beginning in the year 837 A.D., Pope Gregory III declared November 1st to be All Saints' Day. Over time, the night before All Saints' Day also became an important commemoration, even though this day is not recognized by the church. Today that date is more commonly known as Halloween.

Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations feature colorful skulls in many shapes and sizes.
Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations feature colorful skulls in many shapes and sizes.

The Creation of All Souls' Day

After a day for the saints became established, there developed within the church the idea to set aside a day for all deceased Christians—not just the saints and martyrs. This common concept can be traced back to somewhere around 1000 A.D. when a few parishes within the Church began to set aside one annual date when church members could pray for the souls of the dearly departed. Over time, this tradition grew into All Souls' Day, and though this special day is very popular, the church has never designated November 2nd to be an official holiday.

Halloween in America has always had a bit of a sinister tone.
Halloween in America has always had a bit of a sinister tone.

Similarities Between Halloween and Day of the Dead

Sandwiching All Saints Day: Both Halloween and Day of the Dead or All Souls' Day fall right next to the official church day called All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day can be part of either celebration, but the similarities stop here.

All Saints Day: Both Halloween and Day of the Dead traditions incorporate November 1st (All Saints' Day) into the holiday celebration, but they do so in very different ways. Halloween goers might attend church or mass on the day after, but that is about all that happens on November 1st.

The same is definitely not true with activities surrounding the Day of the Dead, for November 1st is the special time to honor any children or young people that have left this earth at an early age. This includes the customary special altars and graveside visits, along with special parades and outdoor activities.

Sometimes the return of the dead can make us laugh.
Sometimes the return of the dead can make us laugh.

The Dead Come Back

On both Halloween and Day of the Dead, it is believed by many that the souls of the deceased return. This belief was strong among the Celts, who believed that just before their new year began on November 1st, the time was prime for spirits of the dead to return and visit the living. However, the similarities stop there.

The Day of the Dead, as celebrated in many Latin American countries, is a joyous time even though participants visit and decorate the graves of their family members. In contrast, in Ireland (where Halloween originated) most residents believed that the spirits that came out on All Hallows' Eve were destructive and were best avoided. Originally, the practice of guising or costuming was practiced so that the returning ghosts would not recognize the living.

Day of the Dead altars are elaborate creations designed to encourage a friendly visit from the deceased soul of a loved one.
Day of the Dead altars are elaborate creations designed to encourage a friendly visit from the deceased soul of a loved one.

All That Candy

In America, Halloween candy and other sweets are consumed in great quantities by costumed Halloween participants. This popular custom dates back to a former era when parcels of food were left out to feed the deceased on the one night (All Saints' Eve) when the people believed that the spirits of the dead were most active.

Day of the Dead Altars

Meanwhile, in Mexico and other places where Day of the Dead is observed, special food and drink offerings are left on special altars to entice a friendly visit by ancestral spirits. Although Christian in many aspects, the roots of this custom may date back to the pre-Columbian culture of the Aztecs.

This Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City.
This Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City.

Night vs. Day

Halloween is strictly a night time affair, while Day of the Dead activities go on all day long, often continuing into the night. Day of the Dead celebrations may include street parades and parties, along with the more traditional altars.

Day of the Dead Art

Over the years, artwork celebrating the Day of the Dead has become very popular and very sophisticated
Over the years, artwork celebrating the Day of the Dead has become very popular and very sophisticated | Source

Halloween Gets Darker

In the U.S. there have been a couple of movies titled Day of the Dead. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with La Dia de Los Muertos. They are simply scary Zombie flicks of the Horror genre.

Furthermore, in America, "fright night" adventures, such as "haunted houses" and "freaky corn mazes" are becoming a standard affair during the Halloween season. Designed to "scare the living daylights out of unwary visitors", these places do serve a social purpose in reminding us that there can be terrific danger and violence in our everyday lives.

Day of the Dead in Mexico

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    © 2017 Harry Nielsen

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