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The Day of the Dead vs. Halloween

Updated on October 28, 2017
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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.

Honoring the Dead Latino Style

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 and 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 that had often 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. So beginning in the year 837 A.D. Pope Gregory III declared November 1 to be All Saints Day. And as we all know by now, the night before All Saints Day would become Halloween.

Remembering All the Souls of Deceased Christians

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 the special day is very popular, the church has never designated November 2 to be an official church holiday.

Sinister Halloween

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

A Few Similarities

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 can be part of the celebration, but the similarities stop here.

Predominantly Catholic Holidays - Both holidays are known as Catholic festival days. Since the arrival of Halloween in the U.S. with Irish immigrants, this holiday has grown in popularity and is now enjoyed by almost everybody. But in earlier times Halloween was not celebrated in America because it was viewed as a Catholic celebration.

All Saints Day - Both traditions incorporate November 1 (All Saints Day) into the holiday celebration, but 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 1.

The same is definitely not true with Day of the Dead, for November 1 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.


The Dead Return

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 has strong among the Celts, who believed that just before their New Year began on November 1, 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, is a joyous time, even when participants visit and decorate the graves of their family members. In contrast, in Ireland (where Halloween originated) most residents believed that the spirits, which came out on All Hallows Eve were destructive and were best avoided. Originally, the practice of guising or costuming was first practiced so that the returning ghosts would not recognize the living.

Day of the Dead Altars

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, while in Mexico, 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 ways, the roots of this custom may date back to the pre-Columbian culture of the Aztecs.

Daytime Celebrations

In modern times, Day of the Dead may involve parades and street parties.
In modern times, Day of the Dead may involve parades and street parties.

Night vs. Day

Halloween is strictly a night time affair, while the Day of the Dead goes 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.

On the other hand, Halloween is named for the night before All Hallows Day, and is one of three major "Eves" that occur during late fall and the first few days of winter, when daylight hours are rapidly shortening and nights are long and turning much colder.

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

Fright Night vs. Tombstone Humor

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. 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 to serve a social purpose in reminding us that there can be terrific danger and violence in our everyday lives.

That's not to say that the world could use a little more tombstone humor to help ease the stark reality of the violent world that seems to increase as each year passes.

Day of the Dead in Mexico

© 2017 Harry Nielsen

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