El Día de los Muertos: A different kind of halloween

As a child, I never really enjoyed Halloween. I’m not a fan of horror or being scared. In fact, I’m still not really a fan of either of them, even to this day. I remember one year I was struggling more than usual with Halloween and my mum told me a story. She told me how unlike in our culture, other people celebrate this particular weekend differently. I remember her saying that instead of trying to scare each other, they celebrate life and remember loved ones that are no longer with us. It was a lovely idea, and that’s what we did that particular Halloween. We didn’t follow any traditions, we merely used it as a time of celebration and remembrance.

The season passed, and I didn’t really think about it again until I was much older. Growing up in England, we celebrated Halloween very similarly to America; costumes, trick or treating, apple bobbing, etc. This said, since moving to Spain I have been lucky enough to make friends from all around the world. One of my closest friends here is from Mexico. This new friendship brought forward that forgotten memory of our ‘unusual Halloween’. Although the part of Spain I live in doesn’t celebrate El Día de los Muertos, especially with the current pandemic, we attempted to have our own. With coronavirus cancelling any travel or big events, it wasn’t the festival it would normally be. But as 2020 has turned out to be the year of make-do and dealing with all that life has to throw at us, it seems almost fitting that our version of the El Día de los Muertos also follows this theme.

Ever the optimist though, this lack of formal or official structure led to a fuller experience in some ways as we had to make everything ourselves rather than buying and trying something even my Mexican friends hadn’t really tried before as it’s normally all readily available for them. This allowed us all to develop an appreciation for the holiday, something I would like to share. Again, this was not a usual experience, but we attempted to keep all aspects we could partake in as close to the authentic experience you would get in Mexico.

How did it all begin?

The 31st of October has been an important date for centuries. To begin with, the Celts used to celebrate Samhain on this date through to the 1st of November. They celebrated this date to mark the end of the summer and the start of the darker half of the year. They believed that the veil between the two worlds (ours and that of the spirits) was lower at this time of year compared to any other. Because of this, they used to light bonfires, make sacrifices, and wear animal skins to scare away fairies and evil spirits that might wish to cause them harm. With the introduction of the Roman Empire across Celtic territories, this holiday changed slightly. The Romans tried to squash the Celtic ways of life but their own similar holidays; Feralia, a holiday to remember the dead, and a festival to celebrate Pomona, the Goddess of fruit and trees, were instead added to the traditions.

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III introduced the idea of Hallows Day, or All Saints' Day, again on the 1st November, a time in which Catholics would celebrate the lives of Saints, followed by All Souls’ day the following day. This travelled to America, where it was celebrated in New England, but not by Puritans further down the states. It would soon become Halloween, as we know it today. In Mexico, the Aztecs had celebrated the dead throughout the month of August. With the invasion of the conquistadors from Spain, Catholic culture was mixed in, although they had tried to eradicate the local culture. The result being El Día de los Muertos, which, although often changing as time progresses, is still celebrated in Mexico and other Hispanic countries today.

You can read the rest of this article in our November issue...