Although they share some important themes, Halloween and Día de los Muertos are two distinct holidays. Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday that falls on November 1–2. It honors the deceased with colorful altars, traditional foods, and lively celebrations. The holiday has its roots in Aztec traditions, and was later blended with Catholic All Souls’ Day celebrations. Today, Día de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico and in many parts of the United States. So go ahead and celebrate both Halloween and Día de los Muertos – just don’t confuse the two!
The Origins of Halloween and Día de los Muertos
Halloween’s roots can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts, who lived in present-day Ireland, Britain, and northern France, believed that on October 31, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On this night, they believed that ghosts of the dead returned to Earth. To appease these ghosts—and prevent them from harming their crops or taking revenge on them—the Celts built huge bonfires where they burned crops and animals as sacrifices (source).
Día de los Muertos also has its origins in ancient traditions. The holiday traces back to an Aztec festival called Miccailhuitontli (“Little Feast of the Dead”), which honored deceased infants and children (source). After Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, they brought with them Catholicism. They combined Miccailhuitontli with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day—two Church holidays that also honor deceased loved ones—to create what we now know as Día de los Muertos (source). Although it is associated with religion, it has a much less solemn tone and is portrayed as a holiday of joyful celebration rather than mourning.
How Halloween & Día de los Muertos
Are Celebrated Today
Nowadays, Halloween is celebrated with costumes, parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, ghost stories—and candy! Lots and lots of candy. While trick-or-treating is popular among young children, many adults prefer to attend costume parties or host their own spooky gatherings.
Día de los Muertos is celebrated in a very different way. Families build altars called ofrendas to honor their deceased loved ones. These altars are decorated with photos of the deceased, marigolds (known as cempazuchitl in Nahuatl), sugar skulls, incense, fruits, nuts, seeds, pansies, amaranth grains, cockscombs, paper macheé skeletons, candles, papel picado, piñatas, and other objects significant to the deceased. Families also prepare traditional foods like mole poblano, pan de muerto, calabaza en tacha, and claritas con hastatepec for their loved ones. They also visit gravesites to clean them up and leave offerings like flowers or wreaths.
Día de los Muertos vs. Halloween:
A Side-by-Side Comparison
To help you further understand the difference between these two holidays, we’ve put together a brief side-by-side comparison:
As you can see, Halloween and Día de los Muertos are two very different holidays! While Halloween has its roots in Celtic tradition and is now primarily celebrated with spooky costumes and candy, Día de los Muertos originated with ancient Aztec celebrations honoring deceased infants and children. We encourage you to celebrate both holidays by learning about their rich histories and planning fun activities with friends, but most importantly though, make sure not to confuse them!