From Maryland to Mexico: Ghosts, Saints and Traveling Spirits

Here we are celebrating another Halloween with scary ghosts, witches, tricky intents and lots of candy. Creating just that right amount of suspense to make it an exciting and fun time.

No matter the weather, I always remember November 1st as a somber day in Italian speaking Europe. There was no Halloween the night before. There were no celebrations on this holiday, other than the obligatory Catholic Mass.

Instead we went to the cemetery to visit the dead that were once part of our lives and brought flowers.

All Saints, All Souls and Día de los Muertos

All Saints Day and Día de los Muertos (=Day of the Dead) are both on November 1st and are linked to Catholic tradition.

All Saints Day is a Catholic Day of Obligation that celebrates those who have reached heaven (includes saints who are not yet recognized by the Church). It is followed by All Souls Day on November 2nd, which offers prayers to those who have died but have not reached heaven yet.

Halloween by contrast, is a secular holiday; it is themed around death and chilling ghosts, but is not affiliated with Catholic traditions. It is rooted in pagan Celtic myths.

The Día de los Muertos holiday has both pagan and Christian aspects and rituals. It spans from November 1st through 2nd and celebrates departed loved ones who return to Earth for a visit. It is a time for parades with cheerful music and striking costumes, for marigolds, colorful skulls, as well as altars loaded with offerings to welcome spirits back into cemeteries and homes.

This (pre-)Hispanic holiday has recently gained in prestige: it was recognized as a living expression of culture by UNESCO in 2008, as it facilitates traditions to be passed down from generation to generation.

Hot Chocolate with the Aztecs

Although prayer and other Catholic practices are a significant part of the Day of the Dead, the festivity originated thousands of years ago from indigenous, pre-Hispanic cultures. At the time it was viewed as disrespectful to mourn the deceased, instead their memories were cherished, celebrated and kept alive. Between November 1st and 2nd  ̶  around the time of the maize harvest  ̶  their spirits temporarily return to Earth and are offered food and beverages.

On a typical Día de los Muertos menu you can find

  • Tamales
  • Mole
  • Pan de muertos which looks like a cross between a sweet brioche and a challah loaf, delicious!
  • Sugar skulls (pressed in a mold and decorated with vibrant colors)
  • Atole (fermented beverage made from agave sap)
  • Hot chocolate

All for you to share and enjoy with your ancestors!

Clothes Don’t Make the Man, But What About the Skeleton?

A big part of the Día de los Muertos celebration is dressing up. Faces are artfully painted to mimic skulls and suits or fancy dresses are worn alongside, just like in Diego Rivera’s depiction of Calavera Catrina in his ‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. (Calavera Catrina = elegant skull, Catrina being a Spanish slang for ‘the rich’; it is the Day of the Dead’s most wide-spread symbol)’.

Gone with the Wind: Papel Picado

Intricately pierced paper, or papel picado, adorns altars and streets. Thousands of perforated layers in vibrant colors flow in the wind representing the fragility of life. This beautiful decoration is used on many other occasions beside the Day of the Dead.


Are you tired of pumpkin carving?

Try a new tradition this year: find a small space that can serve as an altar and add:

  • Pierced paper sheets and sugar skulls
  • Photos of your departed loved ones
  • Food and beverages, try their favorites and the pan de muertos
  • Flowers (typically marigolds or fall mums)
  • Candles
  • Any other item that was cherished by the deceased

What a nice way to remember and respect those who you are celebrating.

Honor, reminisce and treat!