Halloween bases its customs on ancient rituals marking the boundaries between summer and fall, between childhood and adulthood and, especially, between life and death. But it's not America's only celebration that stems from the human fascination with death.
The Celts, who celebrated Nov. 1 as the first day of winter, devoted the night before to their lord of death. But for the Christian church, Nov. 1 was All Saints Day, called All Hallows in medieval England, and the two traditions began to overlap.
The name Halloween -- the eve of All Hallows -- reflects the celebration's religious roots, while many of the customs, such as dressing up as skeletons, ghosts or other symbols of death, stem from the Celts.
The early settlers brought these customs to America, and Halloween, with its tiny trick-or-treaters dressed as witches or goblins, has become a seasonal staple. But in the Southwestern part of the country, where Hispanic culture is influential, Halloween has a rival in the Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead is also known as All Soul's Day, the day in which the Catholic Church commemorates the souls of all the deceased. It falls on Nov. 2, the day following the commemoration of All Saints Day.
Like Halloween, the Day of the Dead is a festive occasion, but sociologist Michael C. Kearl of Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex., points out that it makes use of very different images from the macabre demons and ghosts that are prominent in Halloween customs.
The Day of the Dead celebrates the continuation of life through demonstrations of warmth and love for ancestors. On this day, families welcome the spirits of their departed loved ones, erecting a small altar in their homes with offerings in honor of the deceased.
These offerings may include some of the person's favorite possessions and favorite food and drink, along with flowers, pottery, crosses, portraits of the dead and candles to light the spirit's way to the altar.
The altars may also include sugar concoctions in the shape of skulls, often personalized with the names of children in the house or other living people. The sugar skulls are reminders of mortality.
Children are given toys in the shape of skulls or skeletons. Day of the Dead folk art includes everything from face masks to T-shirts adorned with skeletons dancing, playing ball or participating in other activities of the living.
Many households prepare a special bread for the celebration called "bread of the dead," baked in the shape of skulls, funeral wreaths or bones. The day is an occasion for families to visit the graves of their dead, and cemeteries often become the site of extended family gatherings for picnics or reunions.
But as Dr. Kearl points out, while the symbols and imagery of the Day of the Dead may seem macabre, in reality the celebration is quite different from Halloween. The purpose is not to scare people, or even to give children a chance to turn the tables on adults, as trick-or-treating does. Rather, it is primarily a warm, festive, happy occasion. The altars of the dead are not considered spooky or scary, but a way to express fond memories or simply to show that the dead are not forgotten.
Dr. Kearl says he has spotted Day of the Dead T-shirts in Los Angeles, an indication that the customs may be seeping into the country's popular culture. That would not be surprising. Just as Britain saw the ancient Celtic traditions combined with Christian customs, this melting pot of a country has seen its own share of intriguing blends of cultural practices. As Hispanic culture becomes more influential in this country, Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations seem natural candidates for a cultural blend.