Actually, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos Are Completely Different

In the past few years, Día de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead in English – costumes have been popping up at Halloween stores and parties. It’s understandable. People are drawn to the gorgeous imagery, where macabre meets magnificent.

The two-day holiday’s proximity to Halloween has led many to mislabel it as “Mexican Halloween,” a title that’s not only inaccurate, but culturally insensitive.

Amber Lena’s post, “Day of the Dead, Sugar Skulls, and the Question of Cultural Appropriation,” contrasts “spooky” Halloween with “bright, cheerful” Día de los Muertos and calls out Día de los Muertos imagery that is used for Halloween costumes as appropriation.

“All those ‘Pocahontas’ and Native American costumes you see each year? That’s cultural appropriation. But so are the ‘Mexican’ and ‘Sugar Skull’ costumes (and every other costume that seeks to mimic cultural or ethnic clothing),” Lena writes. “Painting your face like a sugar skull for Halloween? Definitely cultural appropriation.”

(A quick refresher: Cultural appropriation is any time a majority culture adopts aspects from a minority culture. It reduces a rich culture to fashion and accessories and is disrespectful and oppressive to minority groups.)

Someone can still appreciate a culture without appropriating it, however. The first part of appreciation is education, so it’s important to learn the origin and tradition of Día de los Muertos.

The holiday originated from the Aztecs 3,000 years ago. Unlike today, the celebrations and ceremonies were held for an entire month during the summer. When the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, they moved the tradition in order to coincide with their own All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day.

This is the part where many people tend to overlap Halloween and Día de los Muertos: They both fall between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, have ties to All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day, and use similar imagery.

That’s where the similarities end.

While Halloween has evolved to be synonymous with candy and dressing up, Día de los Muertos holds true to its tradition of honoring the dead.

Those who are celebrating put up altars for ancestors and loved ones. These altars are decorated with traditional ornaments, as well as offerings for the dead. These “ofrendas” are chosen by the loved ones and represent the deceased’s favorite things while they were living.

Instead of mourning the dead, loved ones celebrate with festivals, parties, music, dancing, food, and drink. This is done in order to celebrate their lives.

People who may not know the history and traditions of Día de los Muertos might recognize the Calavera imagery associated with the holiday. Calaveras – or, “skulls” – have been a Día de los Muertos tradition for a few centuries. The skulls were made out of clay or sugar, since the two materials were cheap and plentiful. These materials are still used to mold skulls.

It was artist José Guadalupe Posada who first popularized “La Calavera Catrina.” Posada used Calaveras to make political statements in the early 1900s. Originally a satirical etching tied to the European upper class, Catrina has become an important part of not just Día de los Muertos, but of Mexico’s rich culture.

It is Catrina, too, who is the inspiration behind the masks and makeup seen during Día de los Muertos. In the past century, Catrina has evolved and her popularity has increased. In 2013, Mexico City celebrated her 100th anniversary and impact on Mexico’s culture.

While Día de los Muertos is primarily celebrated in Mexico, the holiday is open to anyone who wants to honor and celebrate a loved one. Many people around the world participate in setting up simple or elaborate altars for the deceased. They can be filled with traditional food and drink, or something more personal. It all depends on how each person wants to celebrate.

Photo Credit: GregWillis


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell3 years ago

Thank you

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell3 years ago

Thank you

Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

John B.
John B3 years ago

Thanks Lindsay for sharing the differences.

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F3 years ago


Lori Hone
Lori Hone3 years ago

Glad to see someone explaining what baffles most of the country and we in the Southwest take for granted.

Kathryn Irby
Past Member 3 years ago

Good--couldn't care less about Halloween! Thanks for sharing.