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Halloween and Dia de Muertos: costumes,  music, and dead people

Halloween and Dia de Muertos- totally unrelated but both have costumes, music and dead people.

The costume holidays are here, Halloween and Dia de Muertos, which are not related except for  their proximity on the calendar and the practice of wearing costumes.

Halloween is the New World incarnation of the Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would  wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 to honor all saints, but incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain to make it more palatable, thus was born All Hallows Eve – Halloween.  Halloween came to the New World in the 1840s with Irish immigrants (my ancestors)!. They brought not only the custom of costumes, but of pranks and treats.  From there  popular culture and the candy industry spread it around the world, including to Mexico.

Dia de Muertos is completely different conceptually and historically from Halloween.  Where the pagan and later Christian traditions had a single night of costumes warding off the dead, Dia de Muertos is a two-day celebration that welcomes them.  It derives from Aztec and Maya  celebrations  revolving around death and the dead, but in a positive way, unlike those of Christian Europe. You know – like in Disney’s Coco.

Day of the Dead altar with ofrendas in Ajijic (photo: Sophia Mendeles, Semanario Laguna)

Their view was that death was as a step on a  continuing  journey, not a path to heaven or hell. Since it did not condemn sin,  this view was banned by the Franciscans of  the Conquest.  But some things refuse to die (or are already dead and refuse to leave)  and the Church relented to  allow Dia de Muertos with Christian iconography but with the original purpose of  celebrating those who have passed away and  providing a temporary pathway into this world where they may enjoy the foods and places and people they loved.

It is celebrated differently here in Mexico than in the US.  My experience of Day of the Dead in LA was the Dia de Muertos celebration at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where over 100 bands and 150 altars attract 40,000 people mostly in Catrina and Catrine costumes  to stroll among the graves and altars, drink tequila, enjoy Mexican food and music and Aztec dancing.  

Ballet Folklorico Lake Chapala (photo Patrick O’Heffernan)

The experience is a little different here.  On November 1 and 2 families go to the local cemeteries, clean the graves of their loved ones, leave offerings of food, and marigolds (to allow the dead to return and be with them), and in general party quietly.  Alcohol is discouraged (it comes later), and the only music may be a family member with a guitar or vihuela singing the favorite songs of the des]ceased.

But, this being Mexico, there are many public celebrations and a lot of music.  The local Spanish language newspaper, Semanario Laguna (the Weekly lake) printed a schedule of activities in the communities on the north shore of Lake Chapala, about an hour from Guadalajara. Every town plaza will feature a display of altars and ofrendas (offerings) and photographs of their deceased loved ones. The altars are inaugurated with traditional Mexican and Aztec dances, traditional and popular music, and tequila, cerveza and food.

Aztec Dancer (courtesy Shutter 16)

In Ajijic where I live, a Wall of Skulls created by local artists Efren Gonzales will be lit up with candles.  A parade of Catrinas and Catrines starting at a local high school  will march down the main street, around to the plaza, and then to the Wall of Skulls.  The Plaza is filled with altars, colorful paper decorations, food stalls, and music.

Speaking of music, there will be lots of it.  Traditional Mexican music and dances and Aztec dancing will fill the official government culture center in the county seat of Chapala, while  the other towns scattered around the lake will see mariachi bands, choir performances, the story-telling dance Cascar de la Huesuda, a Day of the Dead-themed puppet shows, a Ballet Folklorico, and a performance by the beloved composer and singer Paco Padilla.

The local music clubs are also whipping up Day of the Dead parties, assuming they recover from the Halloween parties the night before. One that caught my eye, and which I will be attending, is the Day of the Dead concert to be produced by Ray Velvet productions and which will star the local pop singer Sagrey.   She will be backed by an all-star band including Blues Hall of Famer Sergio Casas. Somehow it seems fitting that the quintessential American music will ring out in Mexico celebrating a holiday that goes back3000 years.

So enjoy the costume holidays, be respectful of the dead and of the living, and if you go to Halloween parties, wear your masks(s) . That way your Halloween celebration this year won’t make you an object of your family’s Dia de Muertos ritual next year.

Patrick O’Heffernan



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About Patrick O'Heffernan, Music Sin Fronteras (470 Articles)
Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist based in Mexico, with a global following. He focuses on music in English and Spanish that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America, especially Mexico like cumbia, banda, son jarocho, and mariachi. He is also edits a local news website and is a subeditor of a local Spanish language newspaper. Check out his weekly column Music Sin Frontera on Sunday nights.

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