You may notice that many of our materials on this blog caution you against doing exactly this. Time and time again, we reiterate in different ways that Día de los Muertos should not be construed as the Mexican version of Halloween.
It’s true that, in a contemporary sense, the two holidays are two very different constructions with strongly contrasting purposes and practices. Yet by turning to their ancient historical roots we can see a different interpretation…one which emphasizes their similarities. If you are prepared to lead your students in a more advanced discussion of Día de los Muertos (and of Halloween, for that matter), then we have a wonderful resource to share with you. If, however, you are only loosely covering the holiday, then we recommend not delving into this historical content with your class.
Without further ado, here is our highlighted website for this week: EDSITEment, a resource developed by the National Endowment for the Humanitities. Although the site overall has hundreds of curriculum materials, our focus today is on their guide to the “Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead.” This page touches on perhaps the most salient angle to teach students in the U.S. about Día de los Muertos, and that is revealing how this Mexican festival of life and death is deeply related to the US’ own coinciding holiday.
As students get ready to dress up in costumes and go out trick-or-treating, it is a fascinating moment to explain that Halloween is, in fact, rooted in an ancient Celtic holiday that celebrates the end of the harvest season by connecting the life and death of plants to our own human existence. Although the Celts were thousands of miles across the ocean from the early Mesoamericans, they both followed the astrological and lunar cycles with extreme attention, and many of their most sacred beliefs revolved around these celestial systems. It may even be neat to show the students how the earliest cities, both in Mesoamerica and Europe, were constructed in alignment with the sun and moon. To show this visually, please visit this amazing interactive map of Yucatec Maya cities containing photographs of how the workings of the sky are incorporated into daily life.
As they state beautifully on the EDSITEment page:
“Halloween has traditionally been associated in America with dressing up in costume and with consuming sweets; however, the roots of the holiday lie in late autumn harvest rituals that correspond to natural, seasonal changes and that are expressed in commemorations of the dying year. During this period of transition, cultures across the world remember those who have passed on by drawing an analogy between human death and the dark, cold winter months that loom ahead.”
In this sense, Día de los Muertos is not so different from Halloween. Just as ancient Halloween practices were focused on agricultural cycles, so too were the ancient precursors to Día de los Muertos. The Aztecs were the Mesoamerican peoples who first began the practices which have since evolved into Día de los Muertos. Within their culture, agricultural cycles played an important role. Many of their festivals emphasize the duality of life and death vis-á-vis the growth and decay of the natural world. We can see this influence carried into the present day, as Día de los Muertos ofrendas frequently feature fresh fruits and flowers (though that may vary considerably depending on the local produce available in the community at the time).
This deep historical perspective serves well to remind us about our common roots. Although our current practices are defined more by technology than by the passing of the sun and moon, ancient cultures were strongly attuned to these astrological processes.
It is a beautiful and inspiring notion, that in fact the entire world’s traditions can be tied together by the simple fact that all of them are in some way rooted in the basic systems of the sky, and our age-old desire to form a collective understanding and celebration of this amazing life on earth! Have a wonderful holiday and celebrate life!!!
Image: “Mexican Day of the Dead.” Reprinted from Flickr user Barney Moss under CC ©.