Lively Mexican Holiday Honors The Dead

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a two-day festival that takes place every November 1 and 2. Although most strongly identified with Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America and everywhere with a Latino population, including Los Angeles, California, above.

Photograph by Laura Hasbun, MyShot

Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—is a holiday celebrated on November 1. Although marked throughout Latin America, Dia de los Muertos is most strongly associated with Mexico, where the tradition originated.

Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. (Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar.) 

Dia de los Muertos has its origins in both Aztec tradition and Catholic observance of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). Representations of calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls) are common. These women are celebrating in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Photograph by Nelda Costner, MyShot

Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Dia de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.

The most familiar symbol of Dia de los Muertos may be the calacas and calaveras(skeletons and skulls), which appear everywhere during the holiday: in candied sweets, as parade masks, as dolls. Calacas and calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, often in fancy clothes and entertaining situations.

Use the questions in the following tab (Questions) to inspire discussion about Dia de los Muertos, Latin America, colonialism, and culture.

Catrinas are a specific type of calavera: well-dressed, wealthy women of the early 20th century. Here, a group of catrinas pose on Dia de los Muertos in Merida, Mexico.

Photograph by Ellen Fields, MyShot

Although trick-or-treating has become more common on Dia de los Muertos, the holiday actually has nothing to do with Halloween, which is a Northern European tradition.

Photograph by Michael Allen, MyShot


Dia de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America, including South America (Brazilians call the festival Finados) and the Caribbean. In the United States and Canada, the tradition exists only in areas with a large Latin American population, such as Los Angeles, California, or Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Dia de los Muertos predates the independence of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. Why do you think this is not a widely celebrated American or Canadian holiday?

Answers will vary! Consider the region's history:
•    Dia de los Muertos has its origins in Aztec traditions honoring the dead. The Aztec Empire's influence extended throughout present-day Mexico and Central America, while few Native Americans of the present-day U.S. shared Aztec traditions. They would be unlikely to adopt Dia de los Muertos rituals.
•    Latin America was largely colonized by Catholics, while northern North America was largely colonized by Protestants. Though both Christian, these traditions have different religious calendars, and honor saints and holy days in different ways. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are more important in the Catholic calendar than the Protestant calendar.
•    Latin America was largely colonized by Spain and Portugal, while the U.S. and Canada were colonized mostly by the British and French. National traditions influence religious celebrations. Even though both Spain and France were Catholic nations, for instance, Spanish citizens celebrated All Saints Day with family reunions, feasts, and festivals. Few French citizens marked the day at all.
•    Protestant British and Catholic Spanish explorers had wildly different approaches to the native populations they colonized. Catholic missionaries often incorporated native influences into their religious teachings. They adapted Aztec traditions with All Saints Day to create Dia de los Muertos, where elements of both celebrations are retained. Spanish explorers were also more likely to marry indigenous people, creating a hybrid (mestizo) culture where such cultural adaptation is a way of life.

Calacas and calaveras are everywhere on Dia de los Muertos: masks, makeup, posters, and decorative figurines like these catrinas.

Photograph by Tomas Castelazo, MyShot

Sweets, such as pan de muertos (bread of the dead) and these spun-sugar mariachi musicians, are common treats for Dia de los Muertos. The sweet candy is a balance to the bitterness of death.

Photograph by Alejandra Gonzalez Ruiz, MyShot

In some of these photos, masks and other decorations are only half-decorated withcalacas and calaveras. Why?

Answers will vary! Consider the philosophy of the festival:
•    Dia de los Muertos celebrates death as a part of the human experience: Every living thing will eventually die. Every human being, no matter how beautiful or well-dressed, will eventually be exposed as nothing more than a skeleton and skull. The half-decorated calacas and calaveras recognize this duality.
•    The dead are a part of the community, participating in the same way they did in life. Although their flesh may have disappeared, their cultural associations have not. Skeletons representing firefighters may still ride in a fire truck, for instance,  or a calaca of a vaquero (cowboy) may still ride a horse.

Calaveras de azucar are "sugar skulls", often decorated in bright colors like these in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico. These tiny candies are eaten or left for the dead in ofrendas (small, personal altars) or gravesites.

Photograph by Roberta Garza, MyShot

Dia de los Muertos celebrates death as a part of the human experience. Tradition holds that the dead (here rising from their candy coffins) would be offended by grieving and sadness, so festivities honor them with laughter and joy.

Photograph by George Olney, MyShot

In many parts of Mexico, participants in Dia de los Muertos festivities wear shells or other noisemakers on their clothing and jewelry. Why?

Answers will vary! Consider the culture of the festival:
•    The dead are a part of the community, but invisible to the living. Shells and noisemakers will wake the dead from their sleep, and keep them close during the festivities.
•    Many of the dead were musicians or enjoyed music and dancing.
•    Dia de los Muertos is a celebration, and music is an important part of the joyous atmosphere.

Part of Dia de los Muertos often involves cleaning and decorating the graves of loved ones. Adult graves are marked with orange marigolds, while white orchids are left at children's graves.

Photograph by Sisse Brimberg

On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are awakened from their eternal slumber to become a vibrant part of the community. They are celebrated with objects and activities they enjoyed in life, such as food, drink, and music. Here, mariachi musicians wait for Dia de los Muertos customers at the National Cemetery in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Photograph by Aaron Ganz, MyShot

Fast Facts

  • Family members often clean and decorate the graves of loved ones on Dia de los Muertos.
  • In addition to celebrations, the dead are honored on Dia de los Muertos withofrendas—small, personal altars honoring one person. Ofrendas often have flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered.
  • Dia de los Muertos is actually Dias de los Muertos—the holiday is spread over two days. November 1 is Dia de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. Graves are decorated with white orchids and baby's breath. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, honoring adults, whose graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds.

Although the celebration is bittersweet and its symbols macabre, Dia de los Muertos usually maintains a happy atmosphere well into the evening. Family members recall departed loved ones, sharing humorous and endearing stories around graves (here in Oaxaca) or ofrendas.

Photograph by Tom Dietrich, MyShot

Views: 335

Replies to This Discussion

The traditions are very strange.
At last the dead are remembered.


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