Throughout history, cultures across the globe have adopted creative ways to deal with death. In ancient China, they crafted funerary sculptures to fill complex mausoleums. During the Dutch Golden Age, artists touched on mortality in their memento mori still life paintings. And, in modern Mexico, people celebrate Día de los Muertos, a colorful holiday dedicated to the dearly departed.
Though this festival has evolved over centuries, it remains one of Mexico’s most historically and culturally important events. Here, we explore the vibrant history and distinctive traditions of the Day of the Dead in order to understand its enduring significance.
What is Día de los Muertos?
Día de los Muertos (also known as Día de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday. The celebration occurs annually on October 31, November 1, and November 2, and is held to honor those who have died.
Specifically, the term Día de los Muertos traditionally refers to November 2, when deceased adults are commemorated. November 1—a day known as Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) or Día de los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”)—is reserved for infants and children who have passed away, while October 31 is a day of preparation. However, “Día de los Muertos” is also commonly used to denote the entire three-day fete.
Though the specific traditions and rituals involved with the Day of the Dead vary from region to region, the celebration generally revolves around the creation of an altar, which participants fill with stylized skeletons, food, and other offerings. These alters are dedicated to deceased loved ones and are created to aid them in the afterlife—a concept that has always been central to the holiday.
History of the Holiday
Like many modern holidays, The Day of the Dead has been shaped over the course of hundreds of years. Rites and rituals reminiscent of The Day of the Dead can be traced back to the Post-Classic period (1300 to 1521) in Pre-Columbian Mexico. During this time, the Aztec Empire flourished, bringing with it a treasure trove of traditions.
Like many Mesoamerican peoples, the Aztecs viewed grief as disrespectful to the dead. Rather than mourn the loss of loved ones, they opted to celebrate their spirits, culminating in the earliest edition of the Day of the Dead.
During this month-long festival, the Aztecs welcomed visits from beyond the grave and worshipped Mictēcacihuātl, the goddess of the underworld. Fittingly, this mythological figure has historically been known as “The Lady of the Dead.”
Originally, this celebration occurred in August, the ninth month of the Aztec calendar. However, Catholic influences brought by conquistadors in the 16th century prompted a shift to its present date.
Following Spanish colonization, the Day of the Dead was gradually influenced by another holiday honoring those who have died: Allhallowtide. Inspired by Pagan harvest festivities, this three-day fete comprises All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, on October 31, All Saints’ Day on November 1, and All Souls’ Day on November 2.
This Catholic influence altered the religious aspect of the festival, though it remains rooted in Aztec mythology. For example, La Calavera Catrina—a secular female skeleton character that has come to symbolize Día de los Muertos—was inspired by Mictēcacihuātl.
Ultimately, a blend of Catholic and Pre-Columbian influences is evident in the festival, and is made most prominent by the ofrenda.
On the Day of the Dead, an ofrenda, or offering, is placed on a ritual altar. Central to the celebration, these altars are found in private homes, cemeteries, and churches and welcome the dead back to earth for the three-day event.
Though often compared to Halloween, the Day of the Dead does not revolve around mischief or morbidity. Instead, it focuses on celebrating the dead—an aesthetic illustrated by its festive decorations, spirited food and drink, respectful photographs, symbolic candles, and thoughtful trinkets.
Decorations are intended to honor those who have passed in a jubilant way. To achieve this, they often dazzle with bright colors and incorporate playful skull motifs.
Made out of Technicolor tissue paper, papel picado (or “chiseled paper“) is a flag-like folk art evolved from a Pre-Columbian version made out of tree bark, which was used by the Aztecs to compile codices and adorn religious sites.
Flor de Muerto
Ofrendas also often feature freshly cut Flor de Muerto, bright orange and yellow marigolds intended to cheer up the dead with their brilliant colors and sweet scent.
Colorful skulls made of molded sugar paste (known as calaveras) are another staple of Day of the Dead decor. These small skulls are exquisitely decorated with motifs like flowers and spiderwebs and often feature names of the dead written in foil or icing on their foreheads. Some calaveras feature inedible adornments, like beads, sequins, and feathers, while others are made to be eaten.
Food and Drink
A Day of the Dead altar is typically covered in edible offerings enjoyed by the deceased person in their previous life. Additionally, most ofrendas will also include pan de muerto and spirited drinks.
Pan de Muerto
This “bread of the dead” is a type of sweet roll. It is adorned with bone-like decorations, and is typically flavored with anise seeds and orange zest. Like other offerings of food, it is believed that the visiting spirits absorb and enjoy the essence of the Pan de Muerto, though it is the living who physically consume it.
To help the spirits relax and enjoy the festivities, people will often offer alcoholic beverages like Tequila, Mezcal, and Pulque, a drink made out of fermented agave sap.
Most altars feature photographs that identify who each ofrenda is dedicated to. Though often a family member, the subject can be a friend, celebrity, or even a beloved pet.
Candles are used to memorialize the dead and, symbolically, to help them find their way to the altar. Sometimes, they are placed in a cross formation, both to evoke the crucifix and to serve as a compass rose so they can orient themselves. Other times, however, their arrangement is ambiguous.
Trinkets, Toys, and Other Objects
To add a personal touch to the altar, participants may add objects owned or previously enjoyed by the dead, including clothing, cigarettes, and toys. Statuettes of saints and other religious figures are popular, as are papier–mâché and clay figurines of skeletons.
Día de los Muertos Today
The Day of the Dead remains prevalent in contemporary culture—both in Mexico and beyond. In addition to making alters and attending city-wide festivals, people today often celebrate Día de los Muertos by making themselves up to look like Calaveras, a look that has also inspired countless Halloween costumes.
In 2008, the holiday was even added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, ensuring its enchanting legacy for years to come and drawing attention to its native roots. “This encounter between the living and the dead,” UNESCO explains, “affirms the role of the individual within society and contributes to reinforcing the political and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities.”