Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) is a holiday where we honor the deceased and celebrate life. The traditions and celebrations serve as a reminder that death is an integral part of life rather than an ending. It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to the world of the living and celebrate the cycle of life with their loved ones. Most consider Dia de los Muertos to be a Mexican holiday or a religious holiday, it’s actually a combination of international and historical celebrations that fill two days (November 1st and 2nd) with joy and remembrance. While some aspects of the holiday are rooted in religion, it is primarily a time to commemorate those who came before us. Dive in to learn more about Dia de los Muertos and its historical traditions that evolved over centuries.
Traditions and Celebrations Today
Dia de los Muertos is predominately celebrated in Mexico, but many other Latin American countries and parts of the United States also observe this holiday. Festivities vary greatly depending on geographical location, but many aspects remain consistent.
Visiting the Cemetery
One of the greatest traditions of Dia de los Muertos is for family members to visit the cemetery where their loved ones rest. During this visit, it is customary to clean and decorate the gravesite. Candles and flowers are fundamental decorations to help guide the spirits back to the land of the living. In some places, this is an all-day event that goes well into the night as family members gather and tell stories of past lives. Mariachi bands join in to liven this celebration. Other cemeteries host full fests in honor of the holiday.
Altar (or Ofrenda)
In today’s world where people often migrate away from their hometowns, visiting the cemetery for Dia de los Muertos is not an option. An altar can be created in the home as an alternative way to honor the deceased. Altars are also known as ofrendas (or offerings) since altars are typically full of symbolic items, food, beverages, decorations, and even personal objects of those remembered. While the size and detail of an altar can vary greatly depending on the family and space available, there are staple items that can turn any corner of the home into a Dia de los Muertos altar.
Portraits and Photographs – Displaying pictures of those who have passed is one of the simplest things to do to honor their memory, which is why they have become a cornerstone of today’s altars.
Candles – Candles represent fire and light. They serve as a guide for the spirit on their return to the land of the living. Some altars use dozens of candles, but one candle can be sufficient. It is common practice to say the names of the deceased as the candles are being lit.
Flowers – Flowers not only served as a celebratory decoration but also their aromatic nature draws the spirits home. The holiday’s traditional flower is cempasúchil, an orange marigold, whose bright color and aroma are a welcoming symbol for the deceased.
For a full list of typical altar items and their symbolism, check out the section below.
Festivals and Parades
Festivals and parades for Dia de los Muertos are a more modern concept. The largest events take place in Mexico City, Aguascalientes, and Oaxaca. These events have grown as a way to enhance and preserve the celebratory aspect of Dia de los Muertos.
Parades mimic the spirits’ journey to the land of the living. People dress in traditional colorful garb with faces and bodies painted like skeletons. Large figures of Catrinas, skulls, and altars on floats are form part of the procession along with music and dance.
Festivals also include music and theatrical performances, but they are best known for the artisanal experience. Streets are lined with vendors from far and wide who come to share their historic craftsmanship. Whether it is a one-of-a-kind skull art piece or a “pan de muerto” baker, these vendors are sharing pieces of the beautiful history of Dia de los Muertos and passing it on to future generations.
A Complex History
Like most things relating to Latin America the origins of today’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations and traditions are complex. This rich holiday draws on traditions that started long before Latin America was discovered and before Mexico became an independent nation. See if you can find the connection between these historical events and today’s traditions of Dia de los Muertos.
Before European and Catholic influenced arrived on this continent, the Aztecs were honoring the dead by worshipping the Goddess of Death, Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld, Lady of the Dead. According to Aztec mythology, her duties were to collect and watch over the bones of past lives. Other gods, mainly gods of creation, would take these bones and return them to the land of the living to create a new life and new races. Mictecacihuatl also presided over the festivals that honored the dead, which typically took place during July and or August and included dance, offerings, and sacrifice.
When someone passed away, the Aztecs prepared the dead for the long journey to meet Mictecacihuatl. Food, water, tools, and even precious objects were provided to help endure the nine challenging levels (thought to take four years to complete) that would lead them to eternal rest.
Modern Western Christianity adapted many of its celebrations from ancient European pagan celebrations. Pagans believe in the cycle of natural life which is largely based on the earth’s plant-life cycle and marked by eight festivals. The first of these festivals is Samhain, the festival of the dead. It is believed that during this time, the veil between the afterlife and mortal consciousness is at its thinnest. The celebrations include bonfires, parades, and feasts. Storytelling is also a large part of the celebrations as it is a reminder to the dead that they are not forgotten.
Christian and Catholic Influence
Many denominations of Christianity celebrate All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. The belief is that a strong spiritual bond exists between those in heaven and those still living. Thus these days are observed in honor of the “saints” that have reached heaven. Many European countries, such as Poland, Germany, and Spain, observe All Saints Day as a national holiday where the day off includes attending mass, visiting cemeteries, and honoring both saints and their loved ones.
As Christianity evolved and Catholicism made its way to Latin America, these religious holidays took on new forms as Spaniards made it their mission to convert the new world to Catholicism. Today in Latin America, All Saints Day is meant to honor deceased children while All Souls Day is meant to honor deceased adults. Few countries have both days as a holiday, so it’s become the norm to celebrate all deceased loved ones on November 1st.
Somewhere between ancient history and pop culture, Dia de los Muertos has found its way to the hearts and homes of people all over the world. Religious or not, it is a beautiful way to honor the memories of loved ones and pass on their stories so that they are always remembered.
Symbols and Meaning
- Calaveras – Calaveras is the Spanish word for skulls. Ornately decorated skulls have become the most recognized symbol of Dia de los Muertos. Their symbolism dates back to the times of the Aztecs where skulls were offerings to the gods.
- Sugar Skulls – Sugar skulls have become the modern version of an offering. It is said that their sweetness gives balance to the morbid characteristics of death.
- Catrina – The Catrina is another highly recognized symbol of Dia de los Muertos. She is typically depicted as a tall female skeleton with a fancy hat and a dress. The image we know today was made popular in the 1900s by José Guadalupe Posada. Historians believe this is an evolved image of Mictecacihuatl, Goddess of Death, as she too was depicted as a skeleton with a wide jaw and a skirt made of serpents.
- Papel Picado – Papel Picado is a colorful tissue paper with intricate patterns that represent the holiday and celebration.
- Arches – Arches are typically placed at the top of an altar to symbolize the entryway between the land of the living and the land of the dead.
- Water – Water is displayed on altars in a variety of containers. Its purpose is to quench the thirst of the dead after their long journey.
- Food and Beverages – Altars include food and beverages that the deceased enjoyed during their life on earth. The options here are infinite and often include alcoholic beverages like tequila and rum.
- Pan de Muerto – A key food offering is pan de muerto. It is a sweet bread whose shape symbolizes the bones of the dead. The origins of pan de muerto can be traced back to Spain and Germany where the exchange of bread in celebration of the dead is a common tradition. The Spaniards would take what they call “pan de animas” and wine to the cemeteries to honor the dead.
- Personal Objects – Many altars include personal objects that belonged to the deceased. It is a special way to personalize an altar. It is also common to utilize toys for deceased children.
- Religious Elements – In more traditional and religious homes, you can usually find religious elements incorporated into altars. Crosses, religious icons, and rosaries form part of the display.
What is your take on Dia de Los Muertos? Is it a holiday you celebrate or a holiday you would like to celebrate?