Halloween and the Dia de los Muertos

Halloween and the Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”):
Origins, Similarities, and Differences

UCA museum anthropology students will host a mask-making arts and crafts program for young children on Saturday, October 19 at 11:30 am after the Spanish story hour, and a panel discussion “gallery talk” for youth and adults about the exhibition on Sunday, October 20 at 2 pm. Costumed students will be on hand to answer questions, and bassoonist Holly Williamson will play Halloween and Mexican music for both events.

“This project has anthropological significance because there isn’t a single culture in the world that responds to death in a matter-of-fact way by simply disposing of corpses.  Some cultures focus on bereavement and others on an almost pathological fear of contamination and dread of the dead…what if they should have scores to settle or become angry at having to leave this life?” said Dr. Alison Hall, lecturer in anthropology and museum studies.

This student-produced anthropological exhibition will trace the roots of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) tradition to very ancient pre-Hispanic, pre-Christian roots among the inhabitants of West Mexico who buried their dead in underground shaft tombs as deep as 21 meters (68 feet). Ancient people believed in the continuation of the soul after death in an underworld, and their practice was to “feed the dead” with necessities for their afterlife (with the possible exception of weapons). Precious little is known about these cultures because of the widespread practice of looting tombs and trafficking in their treasures and forgeries. This results in the loss of reliable scientific information archaeologists need to understand the beliefs, life-ways, and ecology of the past. Many of the artifacts from the West Mexican Indian Shaft tombs in some of the best museums in the country have been discovered to be forgeries, and it is estimated that up to 60% are not authentic. Plans have been made for UCA students to work with UCA chemistry professor Dr. Karen Steelman, and experts at the Gilcrease museum in Tulsa to assess, if it is even possible, artifacts that were donated to the university by private collectors in the 1970s.

Students involved in the project are Brittney Behr, Christopher Bohn, Amanda Cross, Jonathan Lewis, Tony Martin, Hannah Mosby, Morgan Rogers, Michael Jason Smith, Breanna Wilbanks, Crystal Taylor.

“This project is another great example of the sort of academic vitality one finds on the UCA campus. Dr. Hall and her students have designed a significant service-learning activity, one that meets a community educational need and advances student learning,” said Dr. Peter J. Mehl, associate dean and service-learning faculty liaison.

In modern times, the Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that falls around the time of Halloween in the USA. It is a time to think about and honor family members who have died. Altars are set up with colorful decorations and orange flowers that are believed to be ways of communicating with the dead. Offerings are left of the things that were enjoyed in this life. Skulls made out of sugar called “Calaveras” and candy skeletons celebrate the lives of loved ones who have died. The holiday corresponds to the Christian and particularly Roman Catholic “All Souls Day” on November 2, but it dates to ancient times when Mexican Indians provisioned their dead with food and implements that might be useful in the afterlife.

In the U.S.A., Halloween is a controversial holiday. After the Protestant Reformation, the idea of purgatory as a place where souls await their fate in the afterlife, was replaced with the idea that all souls would either go to Heaven or Hell and that any apparent appearance of a ghost or spirit would not actually be the spirit of a loved one, but a manifestation sent by the Devil to trick the living. The idea of the undead, or Zombies, which will be one of the most popular costumes this Halloween because of popular culture movies, is not a joke to many people. To others, Halloween is a secular (Non-Religious) holiday that is a time to dress up in silly costumes, to joke about death, and to be glad to be among the living for another year.

The European origins of Halloween as practiced in the U.S.A. date to the ancient Celts 2,000 years ago. November 1 marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, which was a time of year often associated with death. Celts believed that the boundary between the seasons, and also the worlds of the living and the dead, became blurred on the night of October 31 when the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. Wearing costumes of animal heads and skins, they set large bonfires to ward off ghosts. “All Hallows Eve” later became a Christian holiday, and was imported to the New World. The first “Jack-o-lanterns,” made of turnips or beets carved with scary faces, were based on an Irish folktale. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to the Americas where the much larger and easier to carve pumpkin was domesticated. Native American influence may also have had something to do with Halloween becoming a more secular, fun, not-so-scary holiday.