Halloween, Mexican day of the dead and the elderly

Celebration of Halloween in the UK and USA on the night of October 31 and the celebrations surrounding the Mexican Day of the Dead on November 1 are often assumed to be similar but they come from traditions with very different roots.

Celebration of Halloween as it is nowadays is a relatively recent development, with its ghoulish costumes, groups of children knocking on doors looking for treats or tricks, pumpkins in windows and parties.

Halloween’s roots are in ancient pre-Christian traditions, originating in the Celtic culture, from the holiday called Samhain, when they celebrated the end of the harvest season and welcomed the new Celtic year, while at night it was believed that the spirits hovered among the living.

It gradually became Christianised as All Hallows’ Eve, and associated traditions included carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, divination games, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, and telling scary stories.

Because the “horror” and scary elements are so emphasised in Halloween celebrations in the UK it can be a frightening time for the elderly, especially those living alone.

A stranger, especially noisy costumed ones, knocking on the door in the evening can be alarming as can childish pranks such as knocking on a door and running away, shouting through a letterbox or even throwing eggs at a window.

For those living with any form of dementia, costumes, shrieks, screams and an unusual level of activity in the street can be disorienting.

The Mexican Day of the Dead appears similar to Halloween, but its purpose is very different. It is a custom that goes back for more than 3000 years and it is when people commemorate their deceased loved ones by “welcoming” their visit every year in a celebration full of tradition.

On the Day of the Dead, La Catrina plays a very important role. This elegant female skeleton figure is the Mexican version of the representation of death.  It is a colourful festival, where there is an atmosphere of celebration and respect for both life and death. Elements such as the altar are used, where food and drinks are offered to deceased relatives so they feel welcome to celebrate with the living.

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing the favourite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed.