Día de los Muertos alter with orange and blue Calaveras (skulls)

It’s Not Either/Or. It’s Both. Halloween and Día de los Muertos.

November 1, 2021

This story was written by University Communications’ student content writer, Diddiery Santana

In recent years, there have been misconceptions about Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, being referred to as “Mexican Halloween.” While Halloween and Day of the Dead share common roots and traits and fall close together on the calendar, they are different holidays. Halloween is seen as a night of terror and mischief, while Day of the Dead festivities consist of color and joy. We explored the common theme of death through contrasting perspectives.  

The Tale Behind Halloween  

This old-fashioned holiday dates back thousands of years. We all know that Halloween takes place on the last day of October. The word itself means “hallowed evening,” and is known to early European celebrators as All Hallows’ Eve, paying homage to the saints. Eventually, it was shortened to “Halloween.” The earliest known root of Halloween is the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain. Followers believed the changing of seasons signified a connection between this world and the next.   

The Samhain holiday involved several ritualistic ceremonies used to connect with spirits, including bonfires, jack-o-lanterns, and costume-wearing to disguise oneself from ghosts. Rooted in the regions of Ireland, United Kingdom, and France, this origin quickly spread, and immigrants brought many of their traditions to the rest of the world. 

The earliest known American colonial Halloween celebrations in the early 1900s consisted of large parties to honor the harvest, share ghost stories, sing, and dance. Many of the original customs of Halloween have transformed over the years from saints and angels to superheroes, characters, doctors, and everything in between. Trick-or-treating has evolved from children going door-to-door asking for “soul cakes” (biscuits) to candy.   

Children dressed up for Halloween trick-or-treating

Día de los Muertos Celebration 

Day of the Dead originated thousands of years ago with the Aztec and Nahua people. Mourning the dead was considered disrespectful because in these cultures, the dead are still considered to be members of the community. It is up to their families to keep their memory alive. Día de los Muertos is when the dead temporarily return to Earth to be by our side. Celebrations take place on the first and second days of November. 

Sofia Chaparro, assistant professor in the School of Education and Human Development, grew up on the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas. She attended elementary school in Juarez, where she was exposed to Día de los Muertos traditions. “It is the way we acknowledge death,” she said. “It is not a somber day. It is full of life and color.”   

There are countless communities in Mexico and other parts of Latin America that celebrate Day of the Dead. Customs and traditions differ by region, but a few symbols are common throughout these celebrations.  

  • Ofrendas (offerings) are the altars and centerpieces of the celebration. They are built inside homes, stores, cemeteries, and anywhere else of importance. They are meant to welcome spirits back to Earth. They are decorated with offerings such as water, food, family photos, and candles. If the spirit is a child, small toys may be used to fill the altar. The primary reason behind the food and water is to feed the dead after their tiresome trip back to Earth.  
  • Cempasuchitl (marigolds) are the main flowers used to decorate altars. They are scattered across gravesites to guide wandering souls back to their stones.  
  • Calaveras (skulls) are one of the most ubiquitous symbols of the holiday. The most popular, and remarkably elegant, is the Catrina skull. They can be made from wood, paper mâché, or sugar paste and are adorned with bright colors and sequins.  

The Splitting Paths of Halloween and Día de los Muertos  

Although both holidays fall within days of each other, they are not the same. Halloween is celebrated on the last day of October. Día de los Muertos is mainly observed over the first two or three days of November. The first day allows the spirits of children to visit their families. The second day is for the adults and elderly to visit.  

Adriana Alvarez, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Education & Human Development, also grew up in Juarez. After her father’s death, she felt she needed to create an altar to honor him. “My mom passed away four years ago, so I bought an altar,” she said. “I put their wedding picture at the top. It definitely took my loss of loved ones to resurface this tradition.” The animated Disney movie, Coco, is another example of a message that encourages individuals like Alvarez to rediscover their roots, she said. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all when embracing culture and traditions. 

Biculturalism is the ability to take part in multiple holidays and traditions. While you may not have celebrated it as a child, it does not mean the door is closed forever. Third-year student Jazmin Teran and her family enjoy celebrating Halloween and Day of the Dead. They embrace dressing up and trick-or-treating, then do their own celebrations to commemorate their loved ones.  

While both holidays may be considered “spooky,” Halloween revolves around darkness, death, ghosts, witches, candy, and costumes. On the other hand, Day of the Dead is explicitly about the afterlife and remembrance. The skulls symbolize the continuation of memories and of life. It is a sacred time for families as it gives them peace and reassurance.