While Halloween now brings to mind trick-or-treating and fancy costumes, the celebration was originally intended not as a fun holiday, but as a day to remember those who have passed away. The Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is celebrated around the world on either October 31st or November 1st, although the second date has become the most popular, perhaps as a way of marking a difference with Halloween.
The Day of the Dead has its origin in pagan cultures such as the Aztecs, which explains why countries such as Mexico have maintained the practice alive, while other cultures have slowly forgotten the original meaning of the holiday. More than 300 years old, the celebration was originally a more bloody affair that included human sacrifices to the gods of death.
In Mexico, for example, the Day of the Dead is a national holiday, and a celebratory one at that. The mood is festive, and people take to the streets to celebrate the continuation of life in a new dimension, rather than mourning the absence of their loved ones. Most people celebrate by cooking special meals and delivering them to cemeteries, where they are left to be “eaten” by the dead. These offerings can be as simple as bread or as elaborated as three-course meals, and often include flowers, toys for dead children, alcoholic drinks, blankets and pillows, and hundreds of white candles spread out over the graves. Some people spend the night in the cemeteries, while others retreat to their homes for a family meal and the building of small shrines to remember their loves ones.
In other countries, customs to celebrate the Day of the Dead vary, but still keep the departed as the common ground for the celebration. In the Czech Republic, especially Prague, the day has become a mix of Halloween and formal holiday, with people donning masks and lighting candles. Most European countries where Catholicism is the dominant religion have long commemorated the day. The celebration tends to be more somber, and people choose to visit local churches or bring flowers to the cemetery, but skip celebratory parties.