What are the differences between the Day of the Dead and Halloween?

Although there are some similarities, such as the fact that they are syncretic rituals that coincide with the Christian and Catholic celebration of the faithful departed, there are marked differences.

What are the differences between the Day of the Dead and Halloween?
Distinctive features of the Day of the Dead as opposed to Halloween. Photo by Alonso Reyes / Unsplash

There are certain parallels, such as the fact that they are syncretic rituals that coincide in the celebration of the faithful departed in both Christian and Catholic traditions; yet, there are also significant variations between the two.

Day of the Dead

The roots of Mexican tradition go back to the arrival of the Spaniards, who thought of the soul as a single entity. This made it hard for them to understand that the native people thought each person had more than one soul and that each soul had a different fate after death.

In Mexico, the indigenous cultures conceived of death as a dialectic unity: the life-death binomial, which made death coexist in all the manifestations of their culture. The fact that its symbol or glyph appeared everywhere, was invoked at all times, and was represented in a single figure is what has kept its celebration alive throughout history.

One of the main characteristics of the Mexican tradition is the altar of the dead. In its origins, the central point of the cult of the dead was the belief that the souls of the dead return from the underworld.

In the indigenous celebrations, they used to place altars with offerings to remember the dead, where the heads of the sacrificed captives were offered to the gods. These altars, called tzompantli, consisted of rows of skulls threaded through perforations made in the parietal walls, which symbolized death and rebirth.

In an attempt to convert the ancient Mexicans, the Spaniards made the feast of the dead of the indigenous people coincide with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Today, the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico is the result of the religious syncretism of these two cultures.

The celebration usually takes place at the end of October (25–30) and the beginning of November (1-3). Depending on the traditions or customs of each part of the country, the first day of these celebrations is different in each area.


Although nowadays it is a costume party, where children and adults collect and eat large amounts of candy, the origins of Halloween, which takes place on the last day of October, are not so joyful, and its roots come from an ancient Celtic festival more than 3,000 years ago.

Halloween is a contraction of All Hallow's Eve, also known as Samhain ("Summer's End" in Old Irish). The pagan festival was celebrated in Ireland on October 31, when the harvest season came to an end and the "Celtic New Year" began.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the celebration takes place the day before the Western Christian feast of All Saints. It also starts the Allhallowtide season, which lasts three days and ends with All Saints' Day.

During the Samhain festival, it was believed that the souls of those who had died revisited their homes, and it was also believed that those who had died during the year traveled to the other world. People would light bonfires in the hills to rekindle their home fires during the winter to ward off evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks or other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts believed to be present.

It was in this way that beings such as witches, goblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The period was also thought to be favorable for divination in matters such as marriage, health, and death. The holiday arrived as such in the United States and Canada in 1840 through Irish immigrants but did not begin to be celebrated on a massive scale until 1921 when the first Halloween parade was held in Minnesota.

Thus, the mystical rituals of earlier times evolved into more lighthearted fun and games. As a result, it became one of the most important holidays in the Anglo-Saxon world, including the United States, Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, particularly among children.