The Days of the Dead are celebrated in many Latin American countries but nowhere to the extent they are in Mexico. The traditions surrounding the Mexican Day of the Dead, its history throughout the past thousands of years, and its meaning for us today are complex and worthy of many hours of study and discussion. El Día de los Muertos (also referred to as el dia de muertosdias de los muertos, and todos santos) in Mexico is a joyous and sacred time, a time to welcome the souls of the dead; it is a celebration in which the living and the dead are joined if even for a short while. In some ways it is a triumph over death and therefore becomes a celebration of life. Deceased loved ones are given back to families and friends if only for a brief time. If in Mexico at the beginning of November, you will not be able to escape the festivities as it is a national holiday.

Although the Day of the Dead in Mexico has a public aspect, at the community level it is essentially a private or family feast. The core of the celebration is within the family home. The departed children, los angelitos, are remembered on November first while November second focuses on the departed adults. There is nothing somber or macabre about the event. The dead come as spirits from another world to be with their living relatives and to visit in their homes. They do not come to scare or haunt as we believe Halloween spirits do. When children in the United States are shouting “trick or treat” and trying to terrify each other, Mexican children are probably at home helping with the many preparations for the day. It is also possible that today in urban areas, due to cultural influences from the United States, Mexican children may also be running through the streets with their plastic pumpkin or squash carved like a skull asking no me da mi holloween? (Won’t you give me something for Halloween?) and expecting to be given money (not candy).

The United States tradition of All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, came from an ancient pre-Christian Celtic festival of fire, known as Samhain. This popular celebration originated in England, Scotland and Wales. October 31st was an important day to the Celts, and among other things was dedicated to the end of the harvest. It was said that during Samhain banshees and witches were known to steal children, destroy crops, and bring terror to the entire population. At the same time, the spirits of loved ones visited their families looking for warmth and affection. Bonfires were built to help guide the spirits home. In Europe, around 750 AD, the Church instituted November first as All Saints Day realizing that it must eliminate or assimilate pagan rites. In the 13th century, All Souls Day was established on November 2 honoring those souls of the Catholic faith who had passed away. In Medieval times, traditions included decorating graves, all night vigils, and special church services to remember and honor the dead. These traditions were prevalent throughout Europe, and the Spanish conquistadores, colonists and priests, who came to the Americas brought these customs with them.

Long before the Spanish arrived in America, the belief in an afterlife was present in Mesoamerica. We know this from information contained in the archeological record, the surviving codices, and from early Colonial manuscripts. According to the beliefs of the Nahua people (Aztecas, Chichimecas, Tlaxcaltecas, and Toltecas) life was seen as a dream. Only in dying did a human being truly awake. For them the distinction between life and death was not so absolute. In Nahautl, the indigenous language of the peoples of the valley of Mexico, there is much poetic speculation concerning the afterlife. From an ancient poet, we learn:

It is not true, it is not true
That we come to live here
We came only to sleep, only to dream.

Or in the words of another Nahautl poet,

Let us consider things as only lent to us, oh, friends;
Only in passing are we here on earth;
Tomorrow or the day after,
As your heart desires, oh, Giver of Life,
We shall go, my friends, to His home.1

The Nahua people believed that above the earth there were thirteen layers of the heavens and below the earth there were nine levels of the underworld. The destiny of a soul after death was decreed by the manner of death rather than conduct during life. For instance, all those who died as victims of sacrifice or perished in combat became companions of the sun god Huitzilopochtli. The same was true for women who died during childbirth. Those who drowned or were killed by lightning, or water related diseases went to Tlalocan, the raingod Tlaloc’s paradise. Children who died were considered “jewels” and after death were fed by the Chichihuacuauhco or the wetnurse tree. Women who died during childbirth were considered semi-divine. The souls of those not selected by the gods went to the dark plane of the underworld and had to pass through each of nine levels before reaching Mictlan the realm of the death god, Mictlantecuhtli and the death goddess, Mictlancihuatl. Festivals honoring departed children were held in the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar. A festival held in the tenth month was a celebration that honored dead adults. Warriors were honored during the fourteenth month at a corn festival called QuecholliThis last festival coincides with November of our calendar year.

At the time of the Conquest, the Indians of Central Mexico were used to incorporating a pantheon of gods and accepting deities of conquered tribes. Also of great importance is that these Indians believed in many religious concepts similar to Christian beliefs. For example, they believed in an eternal life in which souls continued to live in an afterworld. The difference was that there was no hell. You were not punished after death. The Aztecs also believed that their great god Huitzilopochtli was born of a virgin goddess. The cross was a sacred sign. It symbolized the cardinal points of direction. The Indians also practiced rites similar to baptism, confession, and communion. A priesthood was dedicated to the administration of religious affairs. Other kindred symbols included temples with altars, statues of various gods, and religious processions. The Spaniards used these parallels to their advantage in their systematic effort to conquer in the name of the cross. During their confrontation with the indigenous cultures, the Spanish sensed the power of the celebrations honoring the dead which were at least 5,000 years old. Finally, they realized that conversion could not obliterate tradition, and certain customs would remain. What eventually developed through this tolerance of the old religion was a fusion of Catholic symbols, beliefs, and rituals with those of the conquered people. The celebration of the Mexican Day of the Dead is the best example of this blending of traditions.

Skeletons and skulls were important symbols of death and sacrifice in the pre-Columbian period, but the figure of a satirical and comical death probably appeared during the 1700s. Puppets, masks, figures made of clay, cardboard, toys and candies began to fill the Mexican markets using the image of the skeleton. They were all named calavera, which is the term still used today.

José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913) had a lot to do with the popularization of the human skeleton. Posada was an engraver and artist who did his most famous work during the late 19th century in Mexico City under the regime of Porfirio Díaz. Posada created cartoon illustrations for many popular tabloids specifically targeted at the masses. Around the Day of the Dead, Posada and publisher Antonio Vaneges Arroyo published the well known broadsheets or Calaveras that satirized all elements of society, particularly the upperclass and government officials. Death became in some senses an “equalizer” of injustice for all those burdened by the social inequality of the dictatorship before the Mexican revolution. Today, these broadsheets are still published and the satirization of the bourgeoisie, the goverment, and the church still continues.

Another traditions that remains, although much changed and continually changing, is the ofrenda or altar for the dead. In anticipation of the arrival of the spirits, Mexican families construct special altars in their homes known as ofrendas. Although many elements of Catholicism have been incorporated into the ofrenda, it is considered an indigenous tradition. The customs and traditions of the altars as well as other components of the Day of the Dead can vary greatly within Mexico from region to region according to the pre-Hispanic culture that is predominate. What you see if visiting the Mayas to the South is not what you see with the Yaquisor the Tarahumaras in the North or the Huichols to the West. There are, however, certain components which are invariably present, others which are unique, and still others which are added as new customs, people, and materials arrive in an area. However, on the simplest home altars, as well as the ones made for display in museums and cultural centers, you will always find certain key elements. During the last days of October, market places begin to overflow with people bargaining and buying what they need to decorate and prepare their altars. Special day of the dead bread in wonderful shapes and sizes is baked at home or bought in panadérias (bakeries). Clay candlesticks, candles both simple or beautifully decorated, as well as incense burners are much in demand. Miniature toys and reproductions of skeleton figures, abound. These playfully feature the dead in all walks of life as artists, lawyers, secretaries, paper boys, and even young novios (couples). Colorfulalfeñiques (candies) and papel picado (paper cutouts) are all beautifully presented in the markets and are bought to be placed on the altars to please the returning souls. In many parts of the country, well known artisans and their families have been making these objects for months and depend on good sales for their livelihood. The vibrant material goods created for the Day of the Dead have become an important part of the folk art of Mexico.

Flowers are exceptionally important on this day and the traditional flower, the cempasuchil (yellow marigold) was used by the pre-Columbian people on grave sites and is still used today as the flower of the dead. Baby’s breath, coxcombs, white amaryllis and wild purple orchids called “flowers of the souls” are also prevalent on altars. Black, brown and red mole, along with other special and favorite foods are cooked in preparation for the celebration and the altar becomes laden with delicacies to be eaten by the dead. 

On the evening of November second, the families gather in their local graveyard all night to visit with the souls. Newly cleaned graves are decorated with candles, the cempasuchil flower and food. Children play, men visit in and out, and it is generally the women who keep the vigil, chatting among themselves with sleeping babies in their arms. Food is laid out in churches or on specially constructed community altars for those who have no family to welcome them. Church services are not normally held except in some urban areas where traditional masses are said. At a short distance from the cemeteries, other activities are being played out. Sometimes a band or only a few musicians are present to play music. Parades are staged in which couples masquerade as skeletons dressed up perhaps as bride and groom and dance through the streets of the towns. Masked mummers are there to scare away souls who seem to be staying too long.

In the Mexico of today, the Day of the Dead is a rapidly changing tradition. Each November the festivities and artisanal work attracts more tourists to Mexico and with each year it is becoming more commercialized. Celebrations in general are now livelier, more like a holiday than a holy day. Some of the best known celebrations are in the state of Oaxaca, in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and in the town of Mixquic, near Mexico City. As Mexican author, Carlos Monsiváis observes, in Mixquic and Pátzcuaro the cameras have come to outnumber the candles in the cemeteries: “Kodak takes possession and Mexico has sold its cult of death and the tourists smile anthropologically satiated”.2

In the United States, the custom is also catching on and Day of the Dead altars and displays are now featured in cultural centers in the United States. Last year alone such events were held at the Galería de la Raza in New York, the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, the Fine Arts Center and Museum in Chicago, the Mexican Cultural Center in Washington, and the Bronx Museum in New York. Why? Perhaps because in contrast to Halloween which is filled with demons, witches and images of terror, the Day of the Dead is distinctively different. It demonstrates a strong sense of love and respect for one’s ancestors, celebrates the continuance of life, family relationships, community solidarity, allows people to talk about, and even finds humor in death. In this way Death loses some of its terror. These are all positive concepts.

  1. Leó and n-Portilla, Miguel, Aztec Thought and Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 123 and 124. 
  2. Carmichael, Elizabeth, Chlö, and e Sayer, The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), 9.

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Yes, I have witnessed all of these celebrations, while I lived in Mexico City for two years...



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