Closer Readings Commentary

Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead

Skeleton figures for Mexico's Day of the Dead
Photo caption

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catrina, popularized by José Guadalupe Posada, is the skeleton of a high society woman and one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.

'Tis night for revel, set apart
To reillume the darkened heart,
And rout the hosts of Dole.
'Tis night when Goblin, Elf, and Fay,
Come dancing in their best array
To prank and royster on the way,
And ease the troubled soul.

The ghosts of all things, past parade,
Emerging from the mist and shade
That hid them from our gaze,
And full of song and ringing mirth,
In one glad moment of rebirth,
Again they walk the ways of earth,
As in the ancient days …

—J.K. Bangs, Harper's Weekly, Nov. 5, 1910.

Each year on October 31st, as the ghosts and goblins of Halloween parade the streets and doorsteps of our neighborhoods, we re-enact remnants of ancient folk customs that pay homage to departed ancestors as well as to the souls of our loved ones who have died. These annual revivals of ancient rituals form the basis of our contemporary American festival.

Halloween has traditionally been associated in America with dressing up in costume and with consuming sweets; however, the roots of the holiday lie in late autumn harvest rituals that correspond to natural, seasonal changes and that are expressed in commemorations of the dying year. During this period of transition, cultures across the world remember those who have passed on by drawing an analogy between human death and the dark, cold winter months that loom ahead.

While trick or treating in princess and hobo costumes, carving jack-o-lanterns and telling spooky ghost stories like Washington Irving’s tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are traditional hallmarks of the American holiday, other cultures experience their festivals of the dead in very different forms. This EDSITEment feature can be used with students as a framework for discussing the origins and history of the Halloween festival and introducing them to the Mexican festival, the Day of the Dead (el Día de Muertos), recognizing the common elements shared these festivals of the dead as well as the acknowledging the differences between them.

Here are several guiding questions you might pose to your students:

  • Why are the Halloween and el Día de Muertos festivals held at the end of the agricultural year in conjunction with the autumn harvest?
  • Do the Halloween traditions practiced in America today continue to carry any of their more ancient meanings or historical significance?
  • Why might the making and offering of special foods be an important part of festivals dedicated to the dead in America as well as Mexico ?

Origins of Halloween

The origin of our Western holiday known as Halloween is found in the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain (pronounced SOW-in). From present-day Ireland to the United Kingdom to Bretagne (Brittany), France, the ancient Celts marked this as one of their four most important festival quarter days of the year. Samhain commenced on the eve of October 31st, and ushered in the Celtic New Year on November 1st. The Celts experienced this as a liminal (threshold) period when the normally strict boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became mutable. On the eve of Samhain, they believed the veil between the two realms was the most transparent, allowing the spirits of those who have died to return to visit earth.


The above video is a performance by the Symphony Orchestra of The Marcin Józef Żebrowski Music School in Częstochowa, Poland of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns's "Danse Macabre" (first recorded in 1872). As you listen, imagine what it might look like as spirits return to earth to dance on Halloween night.

The timing of this festival coincides with an important period in the natural calendar, one to which all cultures adhered until fairly recently. It is the time of the final harvests of the year, when animals stockpile stores of food for the winter months ahead, the sun sets earlier and rises later, and the trees shed their leaves. With the end of harvesting season, the entire natural world moves into its annual dormant state of hibernation, essentially “dying” until its annual rebirth the following spring.

After the Roman conquest of much of the Celts’ lands in France and England, Samhain  was affected by the advent and subsequent spread of Christianity. The Church attempted to subsume the festival under the celebration of martyrs and saints, which was established on the ancient Celtic new year — November 1st — and recast it as All Saints Day (with the following day, November 2nd as All Soul’s Day). This festival was called All-Hallows, while the evening before was called All-hallows-eve — later becoming, by contraction, our present-day “Halloween.”

The many traditions associated with the contemporary American holiday, including dressing up in costume, holding parades, playing scary pranks and tricks on one another, bobbing for apples, and lighting bonfires are holdovers from the Celtic Samhain festival as outlined in The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows from the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. Our most popular custom of dressing up on Halloween emanates from the Celtic belief that the ghosts of the departed along with the fairy folk would be abroad roaming the fields and roads near their homes on this night. Fearful of encountering these otherworldly beings on their way to and from the celebrations, they began to wear masks and other ghostly gear in order to fool the spirits into believing they, too, were of the spirit world.

Your students may trace how this holiday has evolved in America from the 19th century into the 21st century. Take a historical look back at Halloween through primary sources available at the Library of Congress (i.e., FSA photographs of children celebrating Halloween from the 1930s, to descriptions of Halloween festivities by Americans early in the 20th century.) Additional examples can be found in historical newspaper accounts, “Superstitions and Celebrations: Halloween History in Chronicling America,” which relate old world folklore and divination customs once commonly practiced in America.    

Ancient Celts in Europe and contemporary Americans are by no means the only people with long histories of acknowledging the close of the harvest season by honoring ancestors, hanging ghostly décor, and donning ghoulish apparel. Students will find commonalities within the seasonal festivals of the dead from cultures celebrating Halloween Around the World and explore the origins of our practices in the History of Halloween. The tradition of leaving food on doorsteps on All-hallows-eve in many parts of Europe in the hopes that it might prevent wandering spirits and fairies from entering the house and placate them evolved into the practice of trick or treating. Such offerings of food for the spirits forms an integral part of many fall festivals of the dead around the world, such as the Day of the Dead, el Día de Muertos, in Mexico highlighted here.

Mexico -- El Día de Muertos

Yo, Netzahualcóyotl, lo pregunto.
¿Acaso de veras se vive con raíz en la tierra?
No para siempre en la tierra.
Aunque sea jade se quiebra,
aunque sea de oro se rompe,
aunque sea plumaje de quetzal se desgarra.
No para siempre en la tierra:
Sólo un poco aquí.

I, Netzahulacóyotl, ask this.
Do we really live with roots on earth?
Only for an instant do we endure.
Even jade will shatter,
even gold will crush,
even quetzal plumes will tear.
One does not live forever on this earth:
only for an instant do we endure.

—Netzahualcóyotl, Aztec warrior, architect, poet and ruler of Texcoco (1402-1472)

El Día de Muertos, or the Mexican Day of the Dead Festival, shares similarities with Halloween, including some similar practices, from decorating with pictures of skeletons, to ghoulishly shaped sweets, like the famous pan de muertos (bread of the dead) or the sugar calaveras (skulls). But el Día de Muertos, which may be one of Mexico’s best-known holidays, consists also of a blending of European traditions brought by the invading Spanish conquistadores and the indigenous traditions of the peoples of Mesoamerica.


The Aztec Festival of the Dead was originally a two-month celebration during which the fall harvest was celebrated, and figures of “death” were personified as well as honored. The festival was presided over by Mictecacíhuatl, Goddess of the Dead and the Underworld, also known to the Aztecs as Mictlán. In the pre-Columbian belief system, Mictlán was not dark or macabre, but rather a peaceful realm where souls rested until the days of visiting the living, or los Días de los Muertos, arrived. Over the course of the festivities, participants place offerings for the dead in front of homemade altars, including special foods, traditional flowers, candles, photographs, and other offerings.

Pre-Hispanic cultures believed that during these days of the year the souls of the departed would return to the realm of the living, where they could visit their loved ones. With the arrival of the Spanish and Christianity, the new rulers of Mexico attempted to marshal the celebrations dedicated to the dead under the auspices of All Saints Day (November 1st), and All Souls Day (November 2nd). The dates of these two Catholic holidays are now celebrated in Mexico as los Días de los Muertos.

November 1st is a day to remember the children who died before experiencing the joys and sorrows of adulthood. Church bells toll in towns across Mexico early in the morning, to call on the souls of deceased children, or angelitos (little angels), to visit their living loved ones early in the day. In the evening of November 2nd, the more involved celebration begins, to welcome the visit of deceased adults.

The celebration includes an invitation for the dead to return to their family home for a visit. Families welcome them back by placing photographs of their deceased loved ones on altars, and may even write and dedicate poems to them. The celebration includes offerings of cempasúchil flowers, drinks and food for the deceased placed alongside their photographs and poems. Another traditional practice is the making of the bread of the dead and the sugar, colorful calaveras (skulls), decorated and labeled with names of people (living or dead). To illustrate this somewhat playful tradition students can view this video (in Spanish, accessible to English-speakers also), Las calaveras están de fiesta (Skulls Having a Party) from the EDSITEment-reviewed site, Mis Cositas, which shows the skulls or skeletons engaged in everyday life in a wide variety of professions. The ritual has special significance for those who have lost a loved one during the previous year, since the festival provides a way of coming to terms with their departure.

Extended families will often gather in cemeteries on the eve of November 2nd, el Día de los Muertos, and congregate at the gravesite of a deceased loved one to hold a commemorative feast. The family may keep a night-long vigil by eating the foods they have made in preparation for the celebration, visiting with each other, and praying for all the members of the extended family, both living and dead. Students can actually witness this celebration in honor of the dead via this highly visual video (in Spanish) from Mis Cositas, which explores in depth the preparations for this important day in Mexican culture.

The creation of the altar is an integral part of the celebration, with many of the ceremonial objects and familiar signature items of Mexican culture to many outside of the country. Altars are often decorated with flowers, whose brief life span is meant to be a reminder of the brevity of life and whose bright, earthly colors are believed to be a guide for the dead back to their loved ones. Brightly colored and intricately cut tissue paper decorates the altar, waving like multi-colored flags. Offerings of sweets, fruits, and other foods are joined by the staples of bread, salt, and water. Grooming supplies, such as a washbasin and soap, may be provided for the spirits to tidy themselves up after their long journey.

Personal possessions of deceased relatives are placed on an altar. Finally, the well-known calaveras that take their place on the altar are representations of skeletons participating in the activities of the living, like cooking, dancing, or even playing in mariachi bands. This somewhat lighthearted treatment of death is characteristic of the remaining Pre-Columbian spirit of this celebration.

Additional material on el Día de los Muertos can be accessed through a number of EDSITEment-reviewed websites. National Geographic offers a pictorial spread on the celebration including questions, fast facts and vocabulary. This holiday is the subject of an ongoing exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum that includes lesson plans, a fact sheet and brochures in English and Spanish. ArtsEdge provides a lesson, Tolerance: Comparing Cultural Holidays, that has students compare our Halloween holiday to the Mexican one, el Día de los Muertos by looking at traditions, music and visual art. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Latino Center Theater of the Dead provides an interactive experience that includes engaging lesson plans for early elementary school with Spanish vocabulary, el Día de los Muertos: Celebrating and Remembering, and for middle school, el Día de los Muertos: a Community Celebration.

El Día de los Muertos is celebrated not only in Mexico, but also in neighboring countries all across Latin America, as well as in the United States. Students may be interested to learn how the festival is celebrated in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California. The Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Texas, sponsors community altar creations along with an annual "Viva la Vida Festival." The museum offers a comprehensive Day of the Dead Educational Activity Guide sponsored by Humanities Texas with valuable cultural background and ideas for art projects to use in classroom celebrations.

Indeed, artists in cities across the United States have found innovative ways to express themselves during Día de los Muertos. Fort Lauderdale, Florida, organizes an annual Skeleton Processional in a community street festival with artists and dancers. The SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, California, hosts an annual Day of the Dead exhibition where artists are invited to install unique altars and expand into other forms of creation. The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago holds a Día de Los Muertos Ball along with a number of other festive offerings. Sugar skull art is an expressive medium to preserve the traditions of this holiday.