10/30/2008 05:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Forget Halloween But Take A Good Look At The Day Of The Dead

For American visitors, it was strange to see so much merriment in a graveyard.

Vendors peddled ice cream pops and red and blue balloons. Mariachi bands struck up familiar melodies and children shouted as they raced around playing tag. Mothers and fathers laughed and sang as they hugged their babies, devoured food and drink from picnic baskets and set up altars at gravesites. All this, in a sea of orange and yellow marigolds, red, pink and blue-dyed roses and hundreds of other brightly colored flowers, purple wreaths and ribbons.

But to Mexicans it's a familiar spectacle that occurs every year on Nov. 2, the annual celebration of the Day of the Dead. The scene described above took place just across the border in Nogales, Mexico. But the holiday is observed in cemeteries, and in homes, throughout that country and has now spread to a growing number of American communities with Mexican-American populations, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and throughout the southwest.

Actually, the Day of the Dead is a two-day observance, beginning on November 1, All Saints Day, and concluding on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. The first day honors dead children, the second and more widely celebrated, dead adults. Mexicans believe that on those days each year, the souls of dead relatives are joined with those of the living. So people of all ages troop to cemeteries to remember their dead ancestors and bond with them. Candlelight and all-night vigils in graveyards are common. Night and day, people bring specially-prepared foods to be shared, at least in spirit, with their dear departed, including a bread, flavored with sugar, orange peel and anise that they call "bread of the dead."

In addition, families set up colorful altars at home, with photos of dead relatives and the deceaseds' favorite knick-knacks and foods. Brightly decorated skulls made of sugar and candy, and skeletons of all sizes and shapes, some performing real-life tasks from farming to firefighting, are the most popular holiday toys and adult novelties. These are not intended to be bizarre, macabre or frightening. Rather, the faces on the skulls and skeletons are usually content, sometimes cheerful. All are designed to point up the continuity between life and death, a reminder, even to toddlers, that the dead are always very much connected to the living.

The origin of the holiday dates back to the Aztec Empire, before Spain's 16th century conquest of Mexico. It was originally celebrated in August. When Spanish priests forcibly converted the Indians to Catholicism, they tried to do away with it. But tradition was already too strong. As a compromise, the holiday was moved to coincide with All Saints and, more importantly, All Souls Day. The Day of the Dead is often wrongly compared with our Halloween celebration, which takes place just before it, on October 31. Halloween, too, features skeletons and skulls, and adds its own ghosts and other creepy creatures. But it is celebrated here only as a holiday for children (albeit with considerable adult assistance) and totally lacks the spiritual and family significance of the Mexican observance.

Their celebration points up the fact that Mexicans have a very different view of death than Americans. It was perhaps best expressed by the late Octavio Paz, Mexico's leading man of letters and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature. Paz says the Mexican "is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away." Indeed, Paz wrote, Mexicans see "death as origin. The ancient, original source is the grave, not a womb." That view may be based on a combination of the Aztec idea that the universe died and was born again in cycles, and the Catholic belief in salvation through the death of a God, which, together, result in what one writer calls "a cultural framework that relates to death, not as a catastrophic and fearful event but as a natural and, occasionally, even enticing proposition."

This view contrasts sharply with the avoidance with which Americans treat the subject. British historian Arnold Toynbee once termed death "un-American," in our culture of youth, beauty and virility. For many Americans, a visit to a relative's gravesite is a rarity. For virtually all, festivities there are unheard-of. Children are shielded from knowledge of death unless and until absolutely necessary.

As Elliot Essman writes on his website guide to "Life in the U.S.A:" "Americans do not like to talk directly about death... people don't die; they 'pass away' [or simply 'pass'] , 'expire,' or 'kick the bucket.' Dead people are 'the departed,' or 'loved ones.' They are 'laid to rest,' rather than buried...Americans have made death what sex once was, a subject only alluded to." Funeral parlors have their own euphemisms. Some refer to a customer's visit before a death as "pre-need." After someone dies, a visit is "at need." Neither time is the word "death" mentioned.

Inevitably, some elements of Mexico's view of death have crossed the border. A century-old Los Angeles cemetery called Hollywood Forever has proudly announced its 9th celebration of the Day of the Dead for Saturday, Nov. 1, and predicts 20,000 visitors, who may view entertainment on four stages and erect more than 100 altars at gravesites. Admission is $5 for adults, Mexican food may be purchased, "Finest skeleton apparel is strongly suggested," according to the cemetery's website, and "No Halloween costumes please." Neither most visitors, nor those buried in Hollywood Forever (including Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power and Cecil B. DeMille) are of Mexican ancestry. One 2007 spectator described the celebration as "very American and show bizzy."

A more traditional view of the holiday was expressed in New York last year by Margarita Larios, a Mexican immigrant, who built an altar as a remembrance to her late relatives and friends. "I feel happiness that they are here in spirit to celebrate," she said.