In the U.S., Halloween is associated with pumpkins and candy corn. But in Mexico, October 31 symbolizes the start of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead festival, when families gather to pray for departed loved ones and ease their journey into the next world.
The holiday originated as a month-long Aztec festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, a goddess of the underworld. After the Spanish colonized of Mexico, though, it evolved to absorb other rituals honoring the dead. November 1 is traditionally Día de los Inocentes, a time to honor dead children and infants, while adults who have passed away are remembered on November 2, or Día de los Difuntos.
"What we believe is that [our ancestors] visit us once a year on these days," says Hanna Jaff, a Mexico City philanthropist and star of Netflix's Made in Mexico. "It's not supposed to be a sad day—it's supposed to be happy. A way to remember our loved ones."
Participants may make up their faces us like La Catrina, the "elegant skull," a satirical character meant to symbolize laughing in the face of death. Parades are held, mariachi music is played, and families serve tamales and pan de muerto, a sweet decorated bun flavored with orange and anise. "Anything that will make it a happy day," says Jaff, who spent much of her childhood in Tijuana,.
Though jubilant, the Day of the Dead festival is still "a very sacred, spiritual days in Mexican communities," explains Cesáreo Moreno, curator of "Día de Muertos: A Spiritual Legacy" at Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art. There is both a public and a private element to the three-day celebration, Moreno explains: "The first part is when everyone goes in the evening to the cemetery, which becomes a living place. In addition to serving food and playing music, explains Jaff, families recall beloved ancestors, talking about them "as if they're with us and alive."
"The stories can give you chills—because you're talking about your ancestors, not some random person on the Internet," she adds. "You remember your roots, like a living family tree." She compares it to Christmas Day, "but nobody's waiting to open gifts—everyone's waiting for stories to be told."
Last year, Jaff's grandmother told her about her own abuela: "She had such a strong personality—everyone in her neighborhood was scared of her because they respected her so much. I was like, 'Wow, I want a little bit of her character.' I would have never heard those stories if it weren't for the Day of the Dead."
It's this oral tradition, Moreno says, that really typifies the Day of the Dead.
"We keep our families alive during these days. We tell stories so the younger generation learns about older ones. We understand ourselves in a continuum. Often children will hear stories about aunts and uncles they've never met, and realize they have something in common with them—whether it be a personality trait, or something like a musical talent."
Another, more private ritual takes place at home, where families build altars they fill with ofrendas, or offerings, to their ancestors. These gifts can include cempasúchil (marigolds), papel picado (decorative cut paper), fruits, candies, candles, fabrics, photographs of the departed or personal objects they held dear.
"Many families make the foods that [the deceased] enjoyed," says Moreno. "So if somebody really loved New York-style pizza, you'd put a slice up on the altar."
It's a quite different experience than trick-or-treating. "During Halloween, it's about things that go bump in the night—things you would rather not see," Moreno says. On the Day of the Dead, "we're welcoming back these souls."
One thing that translates cultures, though, is the anticipation for the big event.
"You go to the supermarket right now in the States and you'll see Halloween things," says Jaff. "Here, you go to the supermarket, everything is Day of the Dead."