Día de los Muertos – A Short Guide to Day of the Dead

(Last Updated On: October 5, 2018)

Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos in Spanish, is a Mexican holiday celebrated between October 31st and November 2nd. It is a time for Mexicans to honor and remember loved ones who have passed on. While this all may seem a bit sad and gloomy, Day of the Dead is actually a festive occasion, filled with various traditions and activities.

One common misconception about Day of the Dead is that it is like Mexico’s version of Halloween. However, this is actually not correct. Despite some similarities, the two holidays are distinct from one another. If you’re curious to learn a bit more about this colorful holiday, here is a short guide to celebrating Day of the Dead.

Pre-Columbian Beliefs

Even before the arrival of European colonizers, the Americas had long been home to various ethnic groups. In Mesoamerica, an ancient region and cultural area extending from Mexico through Central America, many of these groups had different customs and values. One thing that tied them together, however, was a widespread belief in the afterlife.

The Aztecs were particularly fond of commemorating the dead. They had a month-long festival to honor their ancestors, and would commonly leave offerings to deceased relatives during this time. The celebration took place in the month of August, and also paid homage to the lord and lady of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli and his wife Mictlancíhuatl.

Catholic Influence

The Spaniards came to Mesoamerica in the 16th century, at a time when when societies in the region were flourishing. These invaders brought their religion with them, and over time would attempt to replace indigenous traditions with Catholicism. Ultimately, they were pretty successful in doing so.

Catholic beliefs began to mix with native customs, and ancient festivals related to death were moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, two Catholic holidays celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, respectively.

Today, we usually consider Day of the Dead to be a Catholic holiday, but it still very much maintains traces of its pre-Columbian roots.

Offerings for the Dead

Those who celebrate Day of the Dead believe that spirits return to the world of the living for one day each year so that they can be with their families. Babies and children who have died are called angelitos (‘little angels’), and it is thought that they come back to Earth on midnight of October 31st. They spend an entire day with their families before returning to Heaven. Adults come the next day, and again spend time with loved ones before leaving.

Spirits are greeted with offerings of food and things that they enjoyed while they were living. These offerings are laid out on an altar in the family home. The spirits consume the essence of the foods that are offered, while family, friends, and neighbors get to actually eat them once the spirit leaves.

Altars might also include sugar skulls, pan de muertos (‘bread of the dead’), and aromatic cempasúchil flowers (Mexican marigolds).

Cemetery Celebrations

In pre-Columbian times, the dead in Mesoamerica were buried near their family homes. This was so deceased loved ones could remain close to their relatives. Today, the dead are typically buried away from their homes. As such, Day of the Dead celebrations often flow into local cemeteries.

People will commonly visit dead family members to decorate their graves during this time. In some places, people will spend the whole night in the cemetery. While this might sound spooky, those that do so make a party out of it. People will eat and drink, play music, and socialize throughout the night.

La Calavera Catrina

La Calavera Catrina

Much of the imagery surrounding Day of the Dead is playful in nature, with skeletons becoming one of the major symbols of the holiday. One skeleton in particular, the well-dressed La Calavera Catrina (‘The Dapper Skeleton’), has become especially popular.

La Calavera Catrina was created by a Mexican illustrator named José Guadalupe Posada sometime in the early 1910s. He commonly satirized death by depicting skeletons performing everyday activities. These illustrations often included subtle social statements aimed at politicians and the ruling class.

His character has become one of the main symbols associated with Day of the Dead. Today, it is common for even those outside of Mexico to paint their faces in her image around Halloween.

Day of the Dead in Mexico

As with any holiday, Day of the Dead is celebrated in different ways throughout Mexico. In the southern part of the country, like in Michoacan, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, the festivities are more colorful. In rural areas, Day of the Dead celebrations might be more solemn.

Day of the Dead is also evolving. Mexicans have begun to see more and more elements of Halloween creeping into their traditional Day of the Dead celebrations. Conversely, Day of the Dead is becoming much more common and popular in the United States.

Day of the Dead is also observed in some places around the world, and its popularity only seems to be growing. In 2008, it was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. While it’s popularity continues to grow, Day of the Dead remains a defining aspect of Mexican culture, and a distinctly Mexican holiday.

Now that you know a little more about Day of the Dead, test your knowledge by playing this Day of the Dead quiz.



About Mark Heald 224 Articles
Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.