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Day of the Dead is NOT Mexican Halloween

Art by Lily Hoagland

Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, is a holiday celebrated on October 31st, November 1st, and 2nd in many Hispanic cultures. This celebration originated from Central American people and families to remember and celebrate their deceased loved ones by visiting cemeteries, playing cultural music, creating altars, and much more. One thing for sure is that it definitely isn't a “Mexican Halloween.” While Halloween is a fun night for people to dress up, eat candy, and watch scary movies, Day of the Dead holds much more personal and cultural value. The term “Mexican Halloween” is harmful and false, it dampens the significance of the holiday and excludes any other cultures and countries that celebrate it.

Photo by Metzli Esparza

Dia de Los Muertos originated from ancient Mesoamerican Aztec traditions around 3,000 years ago. On this holiday, the Aztec people would perform rituals and celebrations to show their appreciation and love for the dead. When the Spanish Catholics came, they tried to get rid of these celebrations, but ultimately failed, leading to the compromise of Dia de Los Muertos being split into 3 days. Celebrating the lives of children who have passed away takes place on October 31st, while November 1st became All Saints Day, and November 2nd is for remembering adults. All Saints Day was the result of the Spanish Catholic Church’s influence and is still celebrated to this day. While Halloween began as an ancient Celtic festival held to ward off ghosts with costumes and host bonfires, modern-day Halloween traditions have since been watered down to simply offering candy and wearing fun costumes.

Photo by Jeremy Lwanga

Now, let’s talk about attire. Freddy Kruger? No. Stranger Things? No. In Hispanic culture, Day of the Dead is not an event where you get to show off your trendy, cool, or frightening costume. The more traditional style would be big, colorful, floral dresses with flower crowns or long, flowy, elegant, white lace dresses. Alternatively, the holiday wardrobe consists of suits, tuxedos, a fancy guayabera, or a nice blazer with dress shoes and a black hat. Some accessories are feathered earrings, big sombreros, other hats, and lots of flowers. The reason behind this dress code is to show love and respect to your loved ones who have passed and to celebrate and honor the dead. Some people even dress up as La Catrina or Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death, who represents how Hispanic people feel about death. Dressing up as her is a symbol of honor and remembering the beauty of passing away. Most people who celebrate the Day of the Dead even paint their faces like traditional Day of the Dead sugar skulls, which you can either do yourself or get done at many Day of the Dead festivals. You can try to make your face paint unique by adding your own details like flowers, a guitar, hearts, and much more! No matter what you wear, a good rule to remember is to wear anything bright, colorful, creative, and even elegant.

Photo by Danie Franco

Day of the Dead has many fun and vibrant traditions. Contrary to popular belief, it is in no way a sad day. Instead, it is meant to be seen as a joyful occasion filled with love, laughter, remembrance, and family. Some Dia de Los Muertos traditions are Folklorico dancing, Mexican folk dancing, and the hat dance, which commonly symbolizes a man expressing his romantic desires for a woman. These dances are often performed at Day of the Dead festivals along with Mexican folk and mariachi music, a popular Mexican genre. Another traditional dance is La Danza del Venado or Dance of The Dear, which is a Mayan and Yaquis, ancient tribes that lived in Central America, ritual dance.

Photo by Cesira Alvarado

Other traditions are creating ofrendas (altar/offerings for the dead), lighting incense, scattering and planting cempasuchitls, or marigolds (the flower that represents Dia de Los Muertos), face painting and decorating Calaveras de Azucar or sugar skulls, visiting dead loved ones at cemeteries, having a feast, listening to music and singing, and sharing stories of family members who have passed. Those who celebrate Day of the Dead believe that the smell of incense and marigolds helps guide spirits, in the same way that cooking deceased loved ones’ favorite food or playing their favorite music will attract them. However, a more formal tradition is bringing offerings for other families’ ofrendas when invited to their homes for a Day of the Dead gathering. It is also extremely common to decorate your friend’s or family members' graves with flowers, their favorite foods, pictures, and things they used to enjoy doing. For instance, if someone you know who’s passed away loved to play football, you can decorate their grave with items and symbols representing the sport. This highly differs from any Halloween tradition, which primarily consists of scary or silly activities. Because of this, it doesn’t hold much spiritual or cultural meaning.

Photo by Metzli Esparza

Conchas? Yes. Tamales? Yes. Calaveras de Azucar? Yes. A big part of Hispanic culture, especially Day of the Dead, is cooking and having big feasts with your loved ones. Dia de Los Muerto’s traditional food mostly consists of Mexican and Guatemalan meals. Such as mole, sopes, tortilla soup, pozole, enchiladas, and much more. Traditional desserts and drinks are champurrado, atole, churros, calabaza en tacha or candied pumpkin, Pan de Muerto, flan, and horchata. Unlike Halloween, Day of the Dead food isn’t just candy, chocolates, or creepy snacks. It holds a lot more significance- the day isn’t just for fun or to get a little scared, it's to honor those who have passed away, and making their favorite food is a good way to do it, with delicious and traditional Day of the Dead recipes.

Even though Halloween is a great holiday filled with lots of fun and takes place around the same time as Dia de Los Muertos, they share very few similarities. Day of the Dead holds lots of importance for people and it is best to learn how to respectfully celebrate it and call it by the correct name. “Mexican Halloween” is restricting the actual purpose of the holiday and gives people the wrong idea about the beautiful cultural celebration.

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