The Day of the Dead: Día de los Muertos Traditions and History

Día de los Muertos, known as the Day of the Dead in English, is a traditional Mexican holiday. Day of the Dead celebrations last from October 31st to November 2nd.

While many people across Latin America pay respects to their deceased loved ones during the first two days of November, Mexico is home to the best known Día de los Muertos traditions.

This traditional Mexican holiday often starts the day after Halloween, which is mainly celebrated in the U.S. Thus, Mexican Americans often celebrate both in sequence. It’s not merely a “Mexican Halloween”, however! Read on to learn more about this ancient tradition.

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A brief history of Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos derives from the European Catholic traditions of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day and from Aztec rituals that honored the deceased. Like many aspects of Mexican culture, it combines colonial and indigenous beliefs.

The tradition originated in southern Mexico more than 3,000 years ago with the indigenous peoples of the region. When the Spanish invaded and forced conversion to Catholicism, those religious beliefs mingled with indigenous practices to form the basis of the modern holiday.

Día de los Muertos is foremost a day of joy, not mourning. At its heart, it acknowledges death as a key part of the human experience. Traditional belief holds that during Dia de los Muertos festivities, the deceased can awaken from their eternal sleep and share food, drink, and celebrations with their families.

3 common Día de los Muertos traditions

Día de los Muertos celebrations include making altars, decorating with skulls and marigolds, and making pan de muerto.

1. Day of the Dead altars (ofrendas)

Día de los Muertos traditions: ofrenda

One of the most important elements of Día de los Muertos is a traditional altar, or ofrenda, to honor those who have gone before. The ofrenda also, symbolically, makes the deceased feel comfortable when visiting the living.

Families create these altars inside homes, at grave sites in local cemeteries, and in public places and museums across Mexico and the U.S.

These public altars are often elaborate, detailed, colorful, and painstakingly crafted by the families seeking to honor their deceased loved ones.

When preparing an altar, some people include departed family members’ favorite foods and other personal items, along with photos of them as they existed in life. These items have a specific purpose: They welcome returning family members after their long journey from the other side.

Ofrendas can also include:

  • Copal, or traditional incense (dating to pre-Columbian religious ceremonies in Mexico)
  • Cempazuchitl, or the marigold
  • Religious imagery, such as a crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe
  • The four essential elements of nature—earth, wind, water, and fire—in various forms but often including a clay cazuela or cooking pot (earth) and candles (fire)

When finished, ofrendas paint a picture of the deceased family members and what they enjoyed when they walked the Earth.

Above, you can see an example of an ofrenda one family made to honor deceased loved ones.

Notice that it includes images of the honored family members, along with flowers, incense, calaveras, pan de muerto, and some favorite foods and items of clothing of the deceased.

One final note regarding these altars: Parents who have lost children may make altars and offerings on October 31st or November 1st as part of el Día de los Angelítos (the day of little angels). Keep in mind that, due to their nature, these altars carry additional significance and deserve respect and care.

2. Calaveras

Día de los Muertos traditions: 2 painted skulls beside 2 seated skeletons

Calaveras, or skulls, are among the most recognizable symbols of Día de los Muertos. From edible sugar skulls to papier mâché creations decorating homes and altars, you’ll find them everywhere. Some calaveras have the names of deceased loved ones scripted on their foreheads.

The significance of the skull and/or skeleton is to honor the continuous nature of life, laughing joyfully at death and accepting it as part of our everyday existence.

Among the most famous of the calaveras is la calavera catrina, often simply known as la catrina or “the elegant skull.” The image of the famed “lady of the dead” was popularized in the early 20th century and remains popular in el Día de los Muertos traditions today.

Several artisans create skulls that are beautiful works of art meant to be enjoyed year-round. The carefully hand-painted ceramic skulls in the photo above were purchased at the Mercado Sonora pottery marketplace on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City.

3. Pan de muerto

Pan de muertos

Pan de muerto (“bread of the dead” in English) is an important element of the home or graveside offering and is a well-loved part of the holiday. The round shape of the bread represents the human body, the long shapes laid over the top of the bread represent the bones, and the round knot in the middle represents the skull.

Some accounts state that the bread dates back to pre-Hispanic times and may have taken the place of human sacrifices originally required by the Aztecs to honor the holiday. Old Aztec recipes may even have contained human blood, but thankfully, that is not the case in modern times.

Different chefs prepare this bread in different ways, and no two are exactly alike. Some breads rely on aniseed for their flavor, and others orange extract and zest. Modern savory breads sometimes use sesame seeds, though sweet breads made with sugar remain popular.

Do you like baking? Pan de muerto is not that difficult to make at home.

Día de los Muertos celebrations today

As widespread migration has separated many families from ancestral cemeteries and grave sites, Día de los Muertos celebrations have evolved. The holiday has gained widespread recognition in the U.S., in particular, through media attention and a growing Mexican population. Many cities in the United States hold large events and festivals celebrating and honoring Day of the Dead traditions.

There has been controversy in some communities over the commercialization of the holiday. That’s because, though not always meant to be solemn, Day of the Dead festivities are deeply personal and rooted in family history.

This beloved holiday is a resilient, unique celebration of life for communities in Mexico and among the Mexican diaspora.

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