The Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos), is a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. A blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture, the holiday is celebrated each year from October 31-November 2. While October 31 is Halloween, November 2 is All Souls Day or the Day of the Dead. According to tradition, the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults can do the same on November 2.
Origins of Day of the Dead
The roots of the Day of the Dead, celebrated in contemporary Mexico and among those of Mexican heritage in the United States and around the world, go back some 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe, and saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life.
Upon dying, a person was believed to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Only after getting through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, could the person’s soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place. In Nahua rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members provided food, water and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey. This inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead practice in which people leave food or other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes.
Day of the Dead vs. All Souls Day
In ancient Europe, pagan celebrations of the dead also took place in the fall, and consisted of bonfires, dancing and feasting. Some of these customs survived even after the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, which (unofficially) adopted them into their celebrations of two Catholic holidays, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on the first two days of November.
In medieval Spain, people would bring bring wine and pan de ánimas (spirit bread) to the graves of their loved ones on All Souls Day; they would also cover graves with flowers and light candles to illuminate the dead souls’ way back to their homes on Earth. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores brought such traditions with them to the New World, along with a darker view of death influenced by the devastation of the bubonic plague.
How Is the Day of the Dead Celebrated?
El Día de los Muertos is not, as is commonly thought, a Mexican version of Halloween, though the two holidays do share some traditions, including costumes and parades. On the Day of the Dead, it’s believed that the border between the spirit world and the real world dissolve. During this brief period, the souls of the dead awaken and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance and play music with their loved ones. In turn, the living family members treat the deceased as honored guests in their celebrations, and leave the deceased’s favorite foods and other offerings at gravesites or on the ofrendas built in their homes. Ofrendas can be decorated with candles, bright marigolds called cempasuchil and red cock’s combs alongside food like stacks of tortillas and fruit.
The most prominent symbols related to the Day of the Dead are calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). In the early 20th century, the printer and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada incorporated skeletal figures in his art mocking politicians and commenting on revolutionary politics. His most well-known work, La Calavera Catrina, or Elegant Skull, features a female skeleton adorned with makeup and dressed in fancy clothes. The 1910 etching was intended as a statement about Mexicans adopting European fashions over their own heritage and traditions. La Calavera Catrina was then adopted as one of the most recognizable Day of the Dead icons.
During contemporary Day of the Dead festivities, people commonly wear skull masks and eat sugar candy molded into the shape of skulls. The pan de ánimas of All Souls Day rituals in Spain is reflected in pan de muerto, the traditional sweet baked good of Day of the Dead celebrations today. Other food and drink associated with the holiday, but consumed year-round as well, include spicy dark chocolate and the corn-based drink called atole. You can wish someone a happy Day of the Dead by saying, “Feliz día de los Muertos.”
Movies Featuring Day of the Dead
Traditionally, the Day of the Dead was celebrated largely in the more rural, indigenous areas of Mexico, but starting in the 1980s it began spreading into the cities. UNESCO reflected growing awareness of the holiday in 2008, when it added Mexico’s “Indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In recent years, the tradition has developed even more due to its visibility in pop culture and its growing popularity in the United States, where more than 36 million people identified as being of partial or full Mexican ancestry as of 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Inspired by the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre, which featured a large Day of the Dead parade, Mexico City held its first-ever parade for the holiday in 2016. In 2017, a number of major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Fort Lauderdale, held Day of the Dead parades. That November, Disney and Pixar released the blockbuster animated hit Coco, a $175 million homage to the Mexican tradition in which a young boy is transported to the Land of the Dead and meets up with his long-lost ancestors.
Though the particular customs and scale of Day of the Dead celebrations continue to evolve, the heart of the holiday has remained the same over thousands of years. It’s an occasion for remembering and celebrating those who have passed on from this world, while at the same time portraying death in a more positive light, as a natural part of the human experience.
Day of the Dead Traditions
In these ceremonies, people build altars in their homes with ofrendas, offerings to their loved ones’ souls. Candles light photos of the deceased and items left behind. Families read letters and poems and tell anecdotes and jokes about the dead. Offerings of tamales, chiles, water, tequila and pan de muerto, a specific bread for the occasion, are lined up by bright orange or yellow cempasúchil flowers, marigolds, whose strong scent helps guide the souls home.
Copal incense, used for ceremonies back in ancient times, is lit to draw in the spirits. Clay molded sugar skulls are painted and decorated with feathers, foil and icing, with the name of the deceased written across the foreheads. Altars include all four elements of life: water, the food for earth, the candle for fire, and for wind, papel picado, colorful tissue paper folk art with cut out designs to stream across the altar or the wall. Some families also include a Christian crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint in the altar.
In Mexico, families clean the graves at cemeteries, preparing for the spirit to come. On the night of November 2, they take food to the cemetery to attract the spirits and to share in a community celebration. Bands perform and people dance to please the visiting souls.
“People are really dead when you forget about them, and if you think about them, they are alive in your mind, they are alive in your heart,” says Mary J. Andrade, a journalist and author of eight books about the Day of the Dead. “When people are creating an altar, they are thinking about that person who is gone and thinking about their own mortality, to be strong, to accept it with dignity.”
Celebrating the Dead Becomes Part of a National Culture
Honoring and communing with the dead continued throughout the turbulent 36 years that 50 governments ruled Mexico after it won its independence from Spain in 1821. When the Mexican Liberal Party led by Benito Juárez won the War of Reform in December 1860, the separation of church and state prevailed, but Día de Muertos remained a religious celebration for many in the rural heartland of Mexico.
Elsewhere, the holiday became more secular and popularized as part of the national culture. Some started the holiday’s traditions as a form of political commentary. Like the funny epitaphs friends of the deceased told in their homes to honor them, some wrote calaveras literarias (skulls literature)—short poems and mock epitaphs—to mock living politicians or political criticism in the press.
“This kind of thing happens alongside the more intimate observation of the family altar,” says Claudio Lomnitz, an anthropologist at Columbia University and author of Death and the Idea of Mexico. “They are not in opposition to one another.”
The Rise of La Catrina
In Mexico’s thriving political art scene in the early 20th century, printmaker and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada put the image of the calaveras or skulls and skeletal figures in his art mocking politicians, and commenting on revolutionary politics, religion and death. His most well-known work, La Calavera Catrina, or Elegant Skull, is a 1910 zinc etching featuring a female skeleton. The satirical work was meant to portray a woman covering up her indigenous cultural heritage with a French dress, a fancy hat, and lots of makeup to make her skin look whiter. The title sentence of his original La Catrina leaflet, published a year before the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1911, read “Those garbanceras who today are coated with makeup will end up as deformed skulls.”
La Catrina became the public face of the festive Día de Muertos in processions and revelry. Mexican painter Diego Rivera placed a Catrina in an ostentatious full-length gown at the center his mural, completed in 1947, portraying the end of Mexico’s Revolutionary War. La Catrina’s elegant clothes of a “dandy” denote a mocking celebration, while her smile emerging through her pompous appearance reminds revelers to accept the common destiny of mortality.
Skulls of Protest, Witnesses to Blood
Over decades, celebrations honoring the dead—skulls and all—spread north into the rest of Mexico and throughout much of the United States and abroad. Schools and museums from coast to coast exhibit altars and teach children how to cut up the colorful papel picado folk art to represent the wind helping souls make their way home.
In the 1970s, the Chicano Movement tapped the holiday’s customs with public altars, art exhibits and processions to celebrate Mexican heritage and call out discrimination. In the 1980s, Day of the Dead altars were set up for victims of the AIDS epidemic, for the thousands of people who disappeared during Mexico’s drug war and for those lost in Mexico’s 1985 earthquake. In 2019, mourners set up a giant altar with ofrendas, or offerings, near a Walmart in El Paso, Texas where a gunman targeting Latinos killed 22 people.
As Lomnitz explains, one reason why more and more people may be taking part in Día de Muertos celebrations is that the holiday addresses a reality that is rarely acknowledged by modern cultures—our own mortality.
“It creates a space for communication between the living and the dead. Where else do people have that?” Lomnitz says. “These altars have become a resource and connection to that world and that’s part of their popularity and their fascination.”
Some Fascinating Facts About Day of the Dead
Here are some fascinating facts about this day
The Day of the Dead is not Halloween.
Contrary to popular belief, the celebration of the Day of the Dead is not the same as Halloween. A major difference is that Dios de Los Muertos is celebrated for three days while Halloween is only celebrated in one night.
Halloween is also short for All Hallows Eve which indicated the night before All Saints Day. The only similarities the two holidays have is the skeletal costumes as well as the imagery of death and graveyards.
Each altar requires offerings that include the four elements.
The Ofrenda, or offerings, must include four elements such as wind, water, earth, and fire. For the element of water, water is left in a pitcher on the altar for the spirits to drink. Traditional paper banners represent the wind, and the earth element is represented by food. Lastly, the fire elements come from the lighting of candles so that the spirits may be able to find their way to the altar.
It is believed that hairless dogs guide the dead back to the underworld.
The Xoloitzcuintli, or better known as Xolos or the hairless Mexican dog are revered as spirit guides. Because of this, dogs are often included in the decor of the holiday.
Xolos was officially recognized in Mexico in 1956. They are also considered as one of the rarest and unique dog breeds found in the world.
Skeleton face paint is a common way to dress up to celebrate the holiday.
Many people often paint their faces to represent their loved ones or themselves. There is no correct or incorrect way to paint your face to celebrate this day.
The most common type of face paint during this celebration is a skeleton or skull theme. However, they may also be painted with designs and other vibrant colors to give off different personalities.
Marigold flowers are used to guide the souls of the departed during the day of the dead.
The petals of these flowers are used to create a path that the spirits will follow as a guide. This also allows them to travel from between the world of the living and the spirit world.
It is believed that these flowers are used specifically due to its scent that the spirits can smell. Marigold petals are spread across roads and are used to decorate graves and altars as well.
Others celebrate the day of the dead by making Pan de Muerto.
In English, Pan de Muerto translated to the Bread of the Dead. This bread is traditionally baked in Mexico on the days leading up to the celebration of the day of the dead.
This treat is a traditional sweet roll that symbolizes a common offering for the spirits. This bread can also be eaten by families who are celebrating the day of the dead.
The day of the dead is not to mourn the deceased.
Contrary to popular belief, the day of the dead is not meant for a period of mourning. This holiday is dedicated to celebrating the deceased and remembering them.
The celebration of the day of the dead means recognizing death as a natural part of the circle of life. By doing so, it is believed that the spirits can remain a part of the living community so long as they are remembered.
The sugar skulls are used to represent the departed soul during the day of the dead.
These edible skulls are often decorated and placed as offerings on altars for deceased loved ones. The sugar skull is also known as the Calavera and is usually made from sugar or clay. The skulls are also a symbol of joy and happy memories of the deceased when you think of them.
Mexico City holds an annual Day of the Dead parade.
Since 2016, the city of Mexico has held an annual day of the dead parade in celebration of the holiday. The parade features a wide array of skull imagery and vibrant colors. Musical numbers and performances are often featured during the parade as well. Many individuals who come to watch the parade all dress up and paint their faces in the spirit of the holiday.
During the celebration, the dead come back to the world of the living to celebrate.
The day of the dead is believed to be the border that separates the spirit world and the world of the living. The day of the dead represents the brief period that the deceased come back to the world of the living to feast, drink, dance, enjoy music, and reunite with their loved ones.
Tamales are one of the most common foods served during the day of the dead.
This traditional Mexican food is commonly popular all year round. However, they are given more significance during the celebration of the day of the dead. Tamales can be described as a small steamed package that is made from corn husks or banana leaves. They are also filled with masa or a type of corn paste.
In the Yucatan Peninsula, the day of the dead is known as Hanal Pixan.
The term “Hanal Pixan” can be translated to ‘nourishment for souls’ in English. This holiday is traditionally observed to remember friends and relatives that have passed away.
Much like the Mexican Day of the dead, the celebration also takes place for three days between October 31 until November 2.
Decorations for the day of the dead are typically made from paper.
Many of the festive decorations used during the celebration of the day of the dead are made from various kinds of colored crepe paper. Paper flowers are one of the most common decorations made from this material.
Some decorations also make use of colored tissue paper and arts and crafts materials such as pipe cleaners. The decorations come in various vibrant colors, each with its symbolism and meaning.
The iconic symbol of the celebration is La Calavera Catrina.
During the celebration of the day of the dead, the most iconic figure is considered to be the La Calavera Catrina. This figure is represented to be the symbol of the afterlife and is considered to be the la grande dame of the festivities.
The concept of La Calavera Catrina was originally politically satire. It was first introduced by painter Jose Guadalupe Posada as a way of mocking the elite during the reign of Porfirio Diaz.
Graves are often cleaned up and decorated for the celebration of the day of the dead.
During the day of the dead, many celebrate by visiting the graves of their loved ones and cleaning up their tombstones. They then proceed to decorate the graves of the deceased with vibrant flowers, food, and drinks as offerings.
Families will often drink the favorite drink of the deceased to celebrate them.
There are many traditional drinks made in celebration of the day of the dead. However, some customs may differ from family to family. Over time, it has become more common for families to honor the deceased by eating their favorite foods and consuming their favorite beverages. While alcoholic drinks are the main beverage for the holiday, non-alcoholic drinks are also made for families with children.
Offerings are one of the most essential parts of the celebration.
The ofrenda, or offerings, is a collection of objects placed onto a ritual display made during the day of the dead. Photos of deceased friends and family are placed on the center of the altar and surrounded by offerings and decorations. The practice has been dated back to nearly 3,000 years ago and is said to have originated from the Aztecs.
Families that celebrate the day of the dead will often have an altar at home.
For those who cannot visit their family graves annually, home altars are normally established by the family to honor their loved ones during the day of the dead. The altar can vary depending on the family.
Some are decorated extravagantly with large offerings while some are kept small and simple. The ofrenda is the symbol of commemoration of the deceased.
Jamaican iced tea is very popular during the celebration of the day of the dead.
This drink is made from the flowers and leaves of the Jamaican hibiscus plant known as flor de Jamaica in Mexico. This beverage is commonly served cold with ice and is known for its sweet flavor. In English-speaking countries, the drink is also known as hibiscus tea or agua de Jamaica in Spanish.
The day of the dead has roots connected to the Aztecs.
It is said that the origins of the day of the dead began with the Aztec tradition of honoring the dead. In ancient times, the Aztecs were said to offer food and water to the deceased for them to have help when beginning their journey to the land of the dead.
Over time, the tradition has evolved into what modern man knows today as dia de Los Muertos. Previously, the celebration would also occur during August and was celebrated for the whole month.