About the History of Halloween and The Day of the Dead (“Los Dias de los Muertos”)

The Celts celebrated the Day of the Dead in the United Kingdom on October 31st – what’s now Halloween. They believed the spirits rose from the dead on that day every year. They would leave food offerings at their doors – just like giving candy to little trick-or-treaters. They wore masks to scare off or fool the evil spirits into thinking that they were ghosts and ghouls – hence Halloween costumes. Halloween obviously has its roots in this tradition.

The Day of the Dead, Los Dias de los Muertos, takes place between November 1st and 2nd. It’s mainly celebrated in Mexico, the Philippines and some parts of South America. It’s origins in Mexico go back to the Aztecs and Mayans. They believed there was one day in the year when the souls of the dead would visit their loved ones. (The Aztecs actually celebrated the dead for two full months.) They would put out offerings for these spirits. After the Spanish conquest the celebration was mixed with celebrations for the Christian All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd). On All Souls Day Catholics honor the souls of their dead and pray for them, to help them pass from purgatory to heaven.

Today The Day of the Dead still symbolizes a time when the deceased can come back to earth (in spirit) and partake in the pleasures of the world. This is a time of festivities. Families welcome back the dead and offer them treats on a homemade alter. The treats can include special meals, sweets, cigars, drinks, etc. Some may even leave a place at the dinner table for the departed loved one.

All decorations are supposed to be handmade. Skeletons and skulls are important symbols. Paper chains, banners and flowers are also constructed. Sugar candy skulls and bread, called pan de muertos, in the shape of skulls or decorated with bones, are also made.

One part of The Day of the Dead is building the alter (ofrenda). Photos of the departed are placed on the alter, as well as mementos and flowers. Special candles and incense are lit. The treats are often placed on the alter for the departed to “drink in” its essence. After that, the family and friends share it all.

The families may visit the graves of their loved ones and plant or place flowers on the grave. Marigolds are especially important since they symbolize death. They also place fruit or bread on the grave and light candles. Often families will spend the whole night at the grave eating and playing music.

I asked Angela from Reign Trading (which sells supplies for the holiday) about the music played for The Day of the Dead. She said, “…the most traditional song is a Mixtec Indian song called Dios Nunca Muere, which means ‘God never dies’… It’s kinda cute and is heard for days being played by rickety old, out of tune, ‘bandas’ in the village cemeteries. I’ve never found the music on a c.d. or tape. I can hear it in my head however!…It’s cool, it’s kinda a durge waltz.”

I was able to find sound clips of this song…

A midi of Dios Nunca Muere thanks to Oaxaca +.

For an mp3 sound clip of Dios Nunca Muere scroll down to Valses Mexicanos and click on Dios Nunca Muere.

In some towns people dress up as mummies, ghouls, ghosts and skeletons and parade around town with an open coffin.

At the end of the holiday, in Oaxaca, masked dancers go from house to house, singing, chanting and dancing to help the dead go back to where they belong. Because some don’t want to go back!
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Here are some Días de los Muertos links…

How to Make Sugar Skulls

Recipe for Pan de Muertos, Bread in the Shape of Skulls

A Photo of a Day of the Dead Alter

Photo of a Celebration at the Grave

This article was posted on Friday, October 28th, 2005 at 8:13 pm and is filed under Countries & Cultures, Dios Nunca Muere, Folk Songs, Halloween, Holidays Around the World, Mexican Folk Songs, Mexico, The Day of the Dead, United Kingdom, USA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “About the History of Halloween and The Day of the Dead (“Los Dias de los Muertos”)”

  1. Ray Says:

    There’s no “celebration” for the dead in Hong Kong. However, there is a Chinese festival some time in the spring where people go to graveyards and pay respect to the dead. My grandfather on my mom’s side died back in 1973, and since then we’d been visiting his grave site every year on the day of that festival.

    The festival is called Ching Ming Festival. There is actually info about this festival on the web! Check this out:

    http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/heritage/festivals/he_fest_chin.jhtml

  2. Monique Says:

    In France, the day of the dead is officialy on Nov. 2nd – you’ll find “Trépassés” or “Défunts” on any calendar – but people actually go to the graveyards on Nov.1st, on All Saints Day, cos it’s public holiday. They tidy up their relatives’ graves and put chrysanthemums on them, you can see pots of chrysanthemums in their hundreds! Why chrysanthemums? cos they blossom at this time of the year, cos they need little care and are cold-resistant. Ironically, as most people go visit their relatives’ grave, All Saints Day period is the time of the year of most traffic accidents… and dead.

  3. Lisa Says:

    Angela wrote me again about the Day of the Dead song called “Dios Nunca Muere”:

    This waltz was written by Macedonio Alcala when he was sick and dying. There were no words originally. Some consider it the hymn of Oaxaca. My Zapotec Indian friend said that later, Pedro Infante sang it with words, but it wasn’t original. We think you will be able to find something on Google about it.

    It’s played all over today and tomorrow for Day of the Dead.

    Thanks for your interest. Angela Villalba

    I appreciate the info Angela! -Lisa

  4. Lisa Says:

    Hi Lisa,

    I was interested in a song for Day of the Dead and ran across your blog. I wanted to see if I could locate a recording of Dios Nunca Muere and I was able to via a google search.

    It is Track #104 on the following album of folk marimba music. Hope this helps!

    http://www.smithsonianglobalsound.org/trackdetail.aspx?itemid=24563

    Lisa

  5. Anna Says:

    No websites tell about day of the dead music.

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