Don't let the skeletons fool you. The Latin American celebration of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Halloween are not the same. Sure, they are celebrated within a few days of each other, and they both require dressing up, but the two have different origins and customs.
There's room to partake in both holidays, but it is helpful to understand how they compare.
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History and Comparison
The first iteration of what came to be known as Halloween, celebrated on October 31st, was the Celtic festival of Samhain in Ireland. Samhain not only signified the end of the harvest season but it was also thought to be a time when there was an opening between the living world and the spirit world. People would leave offerings of food and drink outside in the hope that the spirits who crossed over would help them survive the winter. The Celts also wore costumes as a way to hide from spirits.
Día de los Muertos, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, is rooted in Aztec tradition that began 3,000 years ago. The Aztecs believed that when a person died, they embarked on a years-long journey to Mictlan, the Land of the Dead and a soul's final resting place. To help their loved ones reach Mictlan, the Aztecs performed a ritual every August to offer food, water and tools to the deceased.
After the Spanish conquered Mexico in the 16th century and introduced Catholicism to the region, the celebration lost its indigenous connections and was moved to early November to align with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
How to Celebrate
Now, the Day of the Dead is a celebration of life, and families honor their deceased loved ones by creating ofrendas, or altars, and offering food and gifts to coax the spirit of the family members back to Earth.
Modern-day Halloween festivities have moved away from the Pagan celebration Samhain and center around dressing up in costume and giving treats to those who participate. Still, the costumes and ghost stories stuck around. People carve jack-o-lanterns, decorate their homes, and take their kids out trick-or-treating.
Treats and Food
When October rolls around, people stock up on chocolates, lollipops, sour gummies, and variety packs in preparation for the trick-or-treaters who go knocking door to door when the sun starts to set on Halloween.
Meanwhile, various Mexican foods play a big role in Día de los Muertos celebrations. Sugar skulls and pan de muerto, a sweet bread decorated with crisscrossed "bones" on top, are on nearly every altar. Families make tamales, pozole and mole to share as they remember the legacy of the deceased.
Costumes and Decorations
Both holidays offer a chance for people to dress up and decorate their homes, but the costumes and decorations are different.
For Día de los Muertos, people paint their faces like calaveras, or skeletons, with flowers adorning the eye sockets to resemble La Catrina. They decorate their homes and altars with colorful paper banners called papel picado and vibrant, pungent marigolds.
Halloween decorations, however, lean into the spookier side of things. People cover their homes in cobwebs, ghosts, witches and animatronic monsters. They carve faces into pumpkins that'll light up their porches. As far as costumes go, there are no limits to how people dress up.
Purpose and Intention
There are a number of points of overlap between Día de los Muertos and Halloween, but ultimately, the two holidays have different intentions.
Día de Muertos is celebrated by the living as a time to connect with and honor the dead. Halloween began as a celebration focused on avoiding evil spirits and is now a holiday for costume parties and ghost stories.
While many countries in Latin America celebrate on November 1st or November 2nd, countries around the world have different approaches to the holiday. For example, Bolivia celebrates Día de las Ñatitas on May 5th in addition to Dia de los Muertos, while Guatemala celebrates November 1st by building and flying massive kites. In the U.S., Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on both November 1st and 2nd.