Many of our current Halloween customs came to the Americas with the arrival of of the first Europeans, but there are other traditions just as ancient, that have been part of the new world for thousands of years. Even today, on the night after Halloween, luminous of candles can be seen on the hillside cemeteries of Mexican villages, where whole families congregate to visit the final resting places of their departed ancestors. What may seem as macabre tradition to outsiders, is actually a very intimate celebration of the union between life and death. In traditional Mexico, the lines between the living and the dead, and life and the afterlife are blurred on one hallowed part of the year — namely the Day of the Dead, or more famously “El Dia de Los Muertos” in Spanish.
Although the modern Day of the Dead festival focuses on gatherings to pray for the remembrance of deceased family members, it’s origins can be traced back to indigenous rituals that have been observed for perhaps as long as three thousand years. Like many early civilizations, the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico had a profound belief in ancestor worship. By the time of the Aztec Empire in the 15th century, the festival that would become the modern Day of the Dead, was part of a month long festivity that coincided with the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, roughly corresponding to the beginning of August today. This late summer festival was dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the dark goddess of the underworld or known more commonly as the "Lady of the Dead". Today the Catholic Saint Catrina is still worshipped in Mexico in many of the same ways as this ancient deity, and even shares her attributes as she is often being shown as a deathly maiden with the face of a skull, on the day of the dead especially. This ghoulish visage became popular internationally when the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada created his famous print of a figure that he called "La Calavera (Skeleton) de la Catrina" , as a parody of a Mexican upper class debutante, depicted as a well dressed lady with a skeletal face. These Catrina figures have become associated with the Day of the Dead ever since, and are a prominent part of the modern festivities. The association of skeletons, or skulls in particular with this holiday also has an affinity with the ancient past, as it was common practice in the pre-Hispanic era to keep skulls as trophies and display them during theses rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. Today it is common to see young girls with their sunday dresses and their faces painted as skeletons wandering thru cemeteries on this night, sometimes with wedding veils and candles on their heads to portray the living brides of the dead.
The modern celebration of Dia De los Muertos no longer occurs at the end of summer as in pre-hispanic times, but coincides with November 1st and 2nd in connection with the Catholic calendar’s “All Saints' Day” and “All Souls' Day” respectively. The colonial church influenced many of the native traditions that it did not stamp out completely, but many aspects of the these customs have survived to the modern era. Ancient practices include building private altars honoring the deceased, and the visiting of familial graves to decorate them with ofrendas or offerings, which often include orange marigolds called "cempasúchitl" which are now ubiquitous with this holiday. Cempasúchitl means twenty or many flowers in the Aztec language Nahuatl, and is also known as the "Flower of the Dead" or "Flor de Muerto" in Spanish. The symbolic importance of these flowers are steeped in the ancient cult mysteries of the pre-Columbian world, as they are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings. This aspect of the supernatural is an important factor in this tradition, as this night is thought to be a time when the dead are especially close to the living. Where as in the west we tend to fear the spirits of the dead, we use Halloween night to get treats form strangers while hoping to avoid ghosts and specters and using these spooky feelings within us to arouse excitement. But for Mexicans the intent is much different, for they wish to is to encourage visits by the souls so that they will hear the prayers of the living that are directed to them. For this reason the two days are spent cleaning and decorating the graves, and placing treats like sugar skulls and liquors, and placing personal items like photos and trinkets that could entice this communication with the dead. Symbolically, pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey back to the afterlife, and in some remote parts of Mexico people spend the night beside the graves of their relatives.
The similarities with the Day of the Dead, and with some of the rituals practiced as part of western traditions, can be traced to the influence that the Catholic church had on local customs of the people they converted. But there are other similarities that can perhaps be part of more primitive desires within all of us to understand the unknown, and to communicate with the dead. So whether dancing with the Irish on bonfires on Samhain, or sleeping on the graves of ancestors on the Mexican Day of the dead, or even dressing as ghouls or ghosts to trick or treat as many people in the west now do, what is certain is that we still see the fall as an evocative time of change. With the changing harvests, and the changing of the leaves on the trees, we can’t help but remember that all life is ever changing and momentary. It is precisely for this reason that we tend to confront our mortality by embracing it and becoming part of the festivities of Halloween, itself a celebration of our darkest fears and wishes that we may persevere in the face of the long winter nights ahead of us.