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 1 is “el Dia de los Inocentes,” or the day of the children, and All Saints Day. 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 ofrendasin 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 minor 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 19th century, the printer and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada reenvisioned Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld, as a female skeleton known as La Calavera Catrina, now the most recognizable Day of the Dead icon.
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 liquor called atole. You can wish someone a happy Day of the Dead by saying, “Feliz día de los Muertos.”
Día de los Muertos: A Brief History, National Hispanic Cultural Center
Giardina, Carolyn, “‘Coco’: How Pixar Brought its ‘Day of the Dead’ Story to Life,” Hollywood Reporter, December 12, 2017
Dobrin, Isabel, “Día de los Muertos Comes to Life Across the Mexican Diaspora,” NPR, November 2, 2017
Scott, Chris. “Day of the Dead parade – Life imitates art,” CNN, October 28, 2016