For one night every year, the dead walk the earth. People dressed in skeleton outfits with skull face paint fill the streets, rattling their noisemakers, singing, and dancing all through the night. Families build altars, light candles and hold vigil for lost loved ones. Marigold flowers and petals are strewn everywhere, illuminating sidewalks and cemeteries in vivid shades of orange and red.
On the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos — or Day of the Dead, in English — people gather to celebrate and honor the dead, and to welcome their spirits back to the land of the living for one night. The vibrant colors and joyous, exuberant spirit of the festivities is a burst of light amid the darkness of a long autumn night.
Origins and History of Día de los Muertos
Although many people think of Day of the Dead as “Mexican Halloween”, the holiday actually isn’t related to Halloween at all — it has an entirely different history and cultural background. Día de los Muertos also didn’t originate from the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day or All Soul’s Day, although the dates coincide (November 1 and 2).
Day of the Dead has been celebrated in Mexico for thousands of years, since long before the arrival of the Spaniards and their Christian beliefs. The festival has its roots in indigenous Aztec, Toltec and Nahua traditions. People from these cultures believed it was more respectful to celebrate the lives of those who had passed than to mourn their deaths. The Aztecs also worshipped a god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, who watched over the souls of their loved ones and aided them in their transition to the afterlife.
To these indigenous Mesoamerican peoples, death and life were deeply intertwined. They understood and accepted mortality as an integral part of being human and alive, and they embraced the cycle of existence in its entirety. Families and communities continued to honor and celebrate their departed members, and they believed that the spirits came back to Earth for one night each year. Hence, Día de los Muertos was born; a lighthearted celebration of life and death, a joyous dance between light and darkness.
How It’s Celebrated
There are many different ways to celebrate Day of the Dead, and traditional ways of celebrating vary between different parts of Mexico. But some of the best-known traditions include ofrendas (altars), marigold flowers, papel picado (perforated paper), cemetery visits, calaveras (skulls), and costumes.
To prepare for Día de los Muertos, many people build ofrendas for their loved ones in their homes, schools, workplaces, cemeteries where their loved ones are buried, and public spaces. These altars, brightly decorated with items such as family photos, crosses, flowers and mementos, are meant to help welcome the visiting spirits back to Earth. It’s common to leave offerings of food and water as sustenance for the spirit’s journey between worlds — pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) is traditional, but other foods and drinks may be left as well. And copal (resin) incense is often used to cleanse and purify the altar space.
If you visit ofrendas or cemeteries in Mexico during Day of the Dead, you’ll notice that many of them are covered in brilliant orange marigold flowers and petals. Marigolds — or cempasúchil in Spanish — grow throughout Mexico in the fall, and they are an integral part of many Día de los Muertos celebrations.
According to Inside Mexico, the symbolism of marigolds comes from an Aztec myth about two lovers named Xochitl and Huitzilin. Huitzilin goes off to war and is killed in battle. Heartbroken, Xochitl prays to the sun god Tonatiuh to reunite her with her lover; the sun then shines down upon her face, transforming her into a radiant, twenty-petaled orange flower. Huitzilin, who has been reborn as a hummingbird, comes to the flower to drink her nectar, and the petals open, filling the air with the aroma of marigolds.
Marigolds have a strong association with the sun, the spirit world, and rebirth. Many believe that their scent helps to attract the spirits of the dead back to Earth. The vibrant, sunny color is also a reminder to celebrate life rather than mourning the passing of loved ones.
Although you can find papel picado hanging in Mexican streets and homes at any time of the year, it becomes especially widespread around the time of Day of the Dead. Artists cut intricate designs (often depicting skulls, skeletons and flowers) into brightly-colored tissue paper, then string them together and hang them across alleyways and in living spaces. The colorful streamers symbolize the air element as well as the fragile nature of life, and on Día de los Muertos, you’ll often see papel picado hanging at ofrendas.
Many Mexican families will visit the graves of loved ones on Day of the Dead. They spend time cleaning and washing the gravesites, decorating with candles and flowers, and setting up ofrendas nearby. In some parts of Mexico, families gather and eat meals next to graves, telling stories of their lost loved one and sharing memories with one another.
On Day of the Dead, you can hardly go anywhere without seeing images of calaveras (skulls) and skeletons. While all the “death” imagery might seem macabre to an outsider, Mexican culture doesn’t shy away from images of death. Artists inject levity into the dark subject matter by making skeletons look like they’re having fun, whether they’re strolling around a park, playing a guitar, or riding in a hot air balloon.
Skeleton art comes in many forms, but one of the most famous images is La Catrina — a lady skeleton dressed in elegant French garb and a frilly hat (a “catrin” is a person of high stature who wears fancy clothes). Cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada created an early version of her in the early 20th century, and other artists subsequently put their own spin on the image. With her posh attire, La Catrina is sometimes seen as a commentary on inequality between socioeconomic classes, but her dress also adds humor and lightness to the image of death, which makes her a perfect symbol of Día de los Muertos.
One of the most popular traditions involving calaveras is making sugar skulls — sweet treats molded to look like skeletal faces. People decorate the skulls with colorful icing to represent particular loved ones who have passed on, sometimes imitating their facial features and other distinguishing characteristics.
Face Paint and Costumes
As part of the holiday festivities, many people dress up in skeleton costumes and paint their faces to resemble the calavera Catrina. Some wear nice suits and elaborate dresses to the celebrations to match Catrina’s stately apparel.
Where the Biggest Celebrations Are
Although Día de los Muertos is observed throughout Latin America, the biggest and most traditional celebrations are still in Mexico. While Mexico City is famous for its parade, it’s a relatively new addition to the festivities; you’ll find a more traditional celebration in the suburb of Mixquic, where family members join in a mass procession to the community cemetery with candles and flowers. Many of the other larger towns in Mexico hold parades and parties, as well.
Observing With Respect
If you are drawn to the idea of celebrating your ancestors in these ways, you’re not alone — there are Día de los Muertos celebrations around the world! If you visit Mexico in late October or early November, you’ll get the most authentic experience of the holiday — just be mindful that this is a time for families to come together and celebrate the lives of their loved ones, so there may be some parts of the festivities that aren’t meant for outsiders. No matter where you go, always approach locals with respect and curiosity for their traditions.
If you’d like to attend a celebration outside of Mexico, consider going to a parade or cultural event that is open to the public. Non-Mexicans should be careful about wearing traditional clothes or skull face paint because it can be seen as cultural appropriation, but there’s nothing wrong with taking part in authentic, Mexican-organized festivities with their permission. This article does an excellent job of explaining cultural appropriation and how to respectfully celebrate other cultures.
Whether or not we partake in an official celebration, Day of the Dead is a beautiful opportunity to remember those we’ve lost, reconnect with our roots, and celebrate the joy of life. Do you have your own story to share? What do you love most about this holiday? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments below.