In Mexico, two celebrations intertwine to honor the deceased. Halloween and the Day of the Dead seek to commemorate their passage on Earth, each in their own way.
The last day of October, Halloween is celebrated, a European and North American tradition, which in Mexico is celebrated mainly in the north side and in the main tourist destinations of the country, while the night of November 1st honors the deceased with the Day of the Dead across the country, a celebration that continues until November 2nd. Both celebrations have their background in ancient pagan traditions.
Halloween has its origin in the Samhain, a Celtic festival which celebrated the end of the harvest season and coincided with its new year.
Before the introduction of Christianity to the north European countries, Druidism was practiced. We do not know very much about the religion of the druids because when the Romans invaded the Nordic territories, they destroyed practically every record of their previous culture. The information that is known until today was transmitted orally from generation to generation.
It is known that the Samhain’s festivities series ended with “the feast of the spirits”, and this is how started the Celtic New Year. This holiday of the spirits was one of its main festivals.
For them, the place of the spirits was a place of perfect happiness in which there wasn´t hunger nor pain. The Celts celebrated this with rites in which Druid priests, serving as mediums, communicated with their ancestors, waiting to be guided in this life towards the immortality. It is said that the spirits of the ancestors then arrived to visit their previous homes.
The Celtic festivity of Samhain is described as a communion with the spirits of the deceased who, on this date, were authorized to walk among the living, giving people the opportunity to meet with their dead ancestors. To keep the spirits happy, they left food outside their homes, a tradition that became what children today do by going from house to house asking for sweets.
The Christians labeled the Celtic celebrations as a heretical practice, and with that excuse, they destroyed much of their culture. It was the time of the submission of pagan free people, who were converted to Christianity by demonizing their beliefs and adopting their festivals. With that, Samhain became All Saints’ Day or in English “All Hallows’ Eve”, which eventually resulted in Halloween.
For the Samhain, it was a tradition to empty turnips (later pumpkins, due to an Irish tradition) and to put candles inside. Several centuries later, this tradition has continuity in the current Halloween, exported by the Irish to the United States in the nineteenth century and early twentieth.
Nowadays, the houses are adorned with hollowed out pumpkins with carved faces, and candles or lamps are put inside. Children go out into the street disguised as monsters asking for sweets from door to door with the phrase “trick or treat”, and if they don´t receive the expected candy, they may play a joke on the house, usually throwing something to dirt the door.
DAY OF THE DEAD
In the same way, in pre-Columbian times, the Mesoamerican people already practiced the cult of death but without the moral connotations of the Christian religion, in which the ideas of paradise and hell serve to punish or reward. They believed that the soul’s destiny of the dead was determined by the type of death they had and not by their behavior in life.
The Day of the Dead is also the product of the syncretism between the pre-Hispanic traditions and the All Saints’ Day instituted by the Catholic Church. The pre-Hispanic burials were accompanied by offerings that contained two types of objects: those that, in life, had been used by the deceased, and those that he might need in his transit to the underworld.
Currently, on November 1st, Mexicans mount altars dedicated to their loved ones who have died, where they place food and objects that they used to like when they were alive. The popular belief is that these offerings guide the souls of the deceased so that they may visit those who miss them during that night.
The altars are mounted in the cemeteries -on the tomb of the honoree- or in the homes of their relatives. The altar is adorned with colored paper in which are cut out figures alluding to the occasion, lit candles, skulls made of sugar (candy of a skull shape), bread of the dead (with simulated bones on top of it) and in the center a photo of the person to whom the altar is dedicated. Around and forming a path to the altar are scattered petals of cempasúchil, a yellow flower that will guide the visiting soul to get there.
By that, cemeteries and homes are filled with color and life in a night full of nostalgia and devotion, where families spend the night awake near the altar of their loved ones who went ahead on the road to the afterlife until dawn on November 2nd, date that is officially considered the “Day of the Dead”.
In conclusion, I can say that the celebration that most retains its original traditions and the most celebrated in Mexico is the Day of the Dead, reason why, in 2008, UNESCO declared the festival as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but both have their origin in a similar belief: that the souls of the dead visit us once a year.