What is the Day of the Dead?

Published on October 30, 2020

When the days become shorter, the air becomes crisp, and the leaves on the trees start changing their colours, it’s a sure sign that Halloween is approaching. In recent years, another holiday that occurs at the same time as Halloween has become popularized in North America – the Day of the Dead. But what exactly is the Day of the Dead, and does it have any connection to Halloween? 

A joyful celebration of the dead

The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos in Spanish, is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1 and 2. While Halloween focuses on the ghastly and horrifying and is often celebrated by visiting haunted houses and watching scary films – the Day of the Dead celebrates the dead in a joyful way, with parties, parades and tasty offerings. 

The holiday is celebrated in the South and Central regions of Mexico and by people of Mexican heritage globally. Although Mexicans of all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate it today, the Day of the Dead is actually rooted in indigenous culture. In 2008, UNESCO recognized the holiday by adding it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The history of the Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead originated some 3000 years ago, in the rituals honouring the dead of the Aztec, Nahua, Toltec and other peoples living in what is now Central Mexico. In those cultures, mourning the dead was disrespectful, since death was considered an integral part of life, and the deceased were seen as part of the community. Originally, the holiday was a month-long festival that took place in August.

During the month of festivities, families would provide food, water and other items that would help the dead on their journey. It was believed that after dying, the dead traveled to the Land of the Dead, where they had to go through a difficult journey until their souls reached their final resting place. The offerings would be placed on family members’ graves, or in ofrendas – altars – in the families’ homes. 

Following the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 16th century, the timing of the festivities had eventually merged with the Western Christian holidays of All Saints Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day at the end of October and the beginning of November. During the 20th century, most regions in Mexico came to adopt November 1 as Día de los Inocentes, honouring dead children and infants, and November 2 as Día de los Muertos, honouring deceased adults.

How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

During the holiday, families visit the graves of their loved ones, or erect ofrendas in their homes. Ofrendas and graves are decorated with various offerings: orange Mexican marigolds (known as the “flower of the dead”), pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”, a sweet bread decorated in skulls and skeletons made of dough), candied pumpkin, and sugar skulls.

Sugar skulls are made with a paste of sugar, lemon, hot water and other ingredients, which is pressed into skull-shaped moulds, and then painted and decorated. Skulls are a central theme in the Day of the Dead: people wear them as masks and eat skull-shaped chocolate or candy. Sugar skulls, however, are usually not meant to be eaten – most of them are for decorative purposes only.

The Day of the Dead is also about celebrating with the dead who have returned to the living world to sing, dance and drink with their loved ones. People fill the streets with parties and parades, dress up as skeletons with fancy suits and dresses, and paint their faces to look like La Calavera Catrina, the female skeleton known as Lady of the Dead who has become the icon of the holiday. 

Enjoy Día de Muertos!

The Day of the Dead is a joyous occasion, not a sad one! If you know anyone who is celebrating it this November, make sure to wish them “Feliz Día de los Muertos”, or “Happy Day of the Dead”.