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Costumes vs. culture: Demystifying the bewitching season

October 27, 2011

“It’s just a bunch of hocus pocus!” exclaimed Winifred Sanderson in the fittingly titled movie “Hocus Pocus.”

And with the bewitching season upon us, two holidays that take precedence this time of year are Day of the Dead and Halloween. But just how closely related are these traditions and what are their origins?

Day of the Day is a traditional Mexican holiday celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2 that brings together friends and family to remember loved ones who have passed away. The holiday is a cultural hybrid between ancient Aztec practices and the Catholic tradition of All Saints’ Day. As part of the celebration it is customary to bring food and gifts to cemeteries to honor the deceased.

Halloween on the other hand grew out of the ancient Celtic Festival of Samhain and the Roman holiday Feralia, which was a day to honor those who have passed. On Oct. 31 Celts welcomed returning spirits to earth with bonfires and costumes depicting saints, angels and devils.

The ideology and practice behind these traditions is what greatly sets them apart. Halloween is a night for the ghouls, vampires and zombies to make their debut in our neighborhoods. Day of the Dead is more of a spiritual event to honor and respect those who are no longer with us. Common practice further includes holding vigils and sharing fond memories and anecdotes.

That doesn’t mean that that we can’t find similarities between the two though.

In modern times both holidays share the practice of dressing in costume, with those celebrating Day of the Dead wearing “muertos” masks, and those celebrating Halloween replicating popular culture figures. Muertos masks are similar in appearance to that of skeletons.

Food also ties these events together. With respect to All-Hallows Eve, people are accustomed to carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples and going door to door in search of the tastiest treats. During Day of the Dead celebrations it is customary to feast on “pan de muerto”, bread of the dead, and to leave chocolate and sugar skulls as offerings to the deceased.

The overarching similarity between the two traditions, however, is the connection between living and spiritual forces.

“The origin of Halloween and Day of the Dead are based on the belief that during a certain time of the year the veil between the spirit world and the mortal world is much thinner than usual, allowing contact between the living and deceased,” said Carmen King de Ramírez, ASU Spanish professor.

So whether you have a passion for ghost hunting or want to commemorate a loved one, this time of year holds something magical and mystifying for everyone.