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The Mass Media

Presénte: The Dead Walk Among Us

Presénte: The Dead Walk Among Us

All Soul’s Night, Day of the Dead, Samhain, Halloween. The holiday that most Americans associate with costumes and candy started a long time ago in Europe. What we know as Halloween was a feast the celebrated the bounty of the summer the harvest in the fall. The Celtic peoples of Europe celebrated Samhain, pronounced SOW-in, as their New Year.

From an astronomical perspective, the holiday falls midway between the Autumnal Equinox (when day and night are the same length) and the Winter Solstice (the longest night of the year.) The summer has died and the season of darkness is upon of us. The Celts believed that the veil between this life and the next was particularly thin during this in-between time. The colors orange and black suggest both harvest and death; bonfires, masks, pumpkins, and cornstalks served to scare away the vengeful spirits.

After Christianity assimilated this earlier religion, “All Soul’s Day” morphed into the day on which the souls of the righteous who had died during that year would ascend to heaven. The Irish descendants of the Celts brought Halloween to the United States in the 1840s.

The Celts were not alone in acknowledging the importance of the day. Mexicans and many Mexican-Americans still celebrate The Day of the Dead, or El Día de los Muertos.

However, instead of scaring away the spirits of the dead, this holiday celebrates those who have gone before us and invites them to continue to watch over their families from the other side.

This holiday is a time of remembrance and a celebration of the powerful and timeless ties of family, both living and dead. Loved ones are said to be present, or présente in Spanish, during the celebrations. The holiday creates a communion between humans, nature, and God. It links past, present and future generations.

During the pre-Hispanic era, death did not exist. Death was seen as simply a transition through time and space towards true life, instead of symbolizing the end of the road. This tradition lives among the people of the Huasteca Potosina Region, in a practice they call Xantolo.

Xantolo brings a vital force known as the chalchuithitl, manifesting in outdoor markets and fields, as well as in the home in preparation of tamales, growing corn, making candles, baking bread for Day of the Dead, creating fireworks, and altar building.

Altar Building

Day of the Dead in Mexico represents a mixture of Christian devotion and Pre-Hispanic traditions and beliefs. In this unique tradition, families will build an altar in their home covered with wildflowers, photos of loved ones, and offerings dedicated to the

deceased. The traditional altar includes four elements of earth-based spirituality – earth, wind, water, and fire.

Earth is represented by crops. It is believed the souls are fed by the aroma of food, and by a special kind of powerful incense known as copál. Wind is represented by a moving object; tissue paper cut-out in fantastical shapes are commonly used to represent wind. Water is placed on the altar to allow the soul to quench its thirst after its long journey to the altar. Fire is represented by candles: each lit candle represents a soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul.


In Mexico City, windows are decorated with skeletons and verses dedicated to the deceased. People buy bread from bakeries to offer first their ancestors, then enjoy as a family. The skeletons represent souls who have crossed over into the afterlife, their presence marks the end of a cycle and watches over its new beginning.


In Mexico, regional wildflowers decorate the altar,s including golden Flowers of the Dead and red Rooster’s Crest from Oaxaca. Here in America, marigolds and chrysanthemums are often substituted.