What is Day of the Dead?

Lorri Brown
Calacas are whimsical figures prominently featured in Day of the Dead celebrations.

Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, is a popular celebration throughout Latin America, most typically associated with Mexico. Viewed as a celebration of the cycle of life, Day of the Dead festivities feature flowers, candies, music and parades. Day of the Dead celebrations are increasingly popular in certain areas of the United States with high Hispanic populations.

History of Day of the Dead

The Aztecs

Day of the Dead originated from the Aztecs, the early indigenous people in what is now largely Mexico. The Aztecs viewed death as a natural part of the cycle of life and believed it to be insulting if they mourned those who had passed before them. The Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihualt, Lady of the Dead, with a month long celebration each summer, in which the living and dead were temporarily reunited.

The Conquistadors

The arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century brought Catholicism to the Aztecs. Unlike the Protestants who settled in North America, Spanish missionaries were flexible when it came to integrating the native's beliefs with Catholic doctrine. Over time, the Aztec ritual of honoring their dead intertwined with the Catholic observances of All Saints Day and All Souls Day to create the celebration known today as Day of the Dead.

All Saints Day

The Catholic observance of All Saints Day takes place November 1. It was established in the eighth century as a way to combat pagan rites, such as the Celtic observance of Halloween. All Saints Day, just as the name implies, celebrated all saints, both known and unknown. It was especially popular observance in Spain, with family reunions, feasting and festivals.

All Souls Day

In the 13th century, the Catholic Church established All Souls Day on November 2 to commemorate the faithful departed. There were special masses given at the local church and families would spend time in the church graveyard, tidying up their loved one's graves and holding a nighttime vigil.

Day of the Dead Celebrations

In keeping with the Catholic traditions, Day of the Dead is a two day celebration.

  • Dia de los Inocentes takes place on November 1, to celebrate the lives of deceased children. Families decorate graves of children with white gladiolas and baby breath.
  • Dia de los Muertos takes place on November 2, celebrating the lives of deceased adults. Adult graves are decorated with brightly colored marigolds, called cempasuchil.

In the evening, families gather in the local graveyard to hold a vigil. Day of the Dead vigils are loud and boisterous affairs, with much noise and festivities. People wear shells and noisemakers to help wake the dead. Musicians may play near the graveyard and parades take place in the town.

Calacas and Calaveras

The most iconic symbol of the Day of the Dead are Calacas (skeletons) and Calaveras (skulls).

  • Calacas are featured in parades, dressed in fancy clothes or in regular work clothes, adding a touch whimsy to the festivities.
  • Calaveras are popular as candy treats and decorations.

While skulls have long been used in Aztec rituals, the more comical skeletons familiar to the modern Day of the Dead celebrations can be traced back to the 19th century to artist José Guadalupe Posada.

Ofrendas

Another popular symbol of Day of the Dead are the personal altars, ofrendas, families create to celebrate their lost loved ones. In Latin America, there is a strong belief that happy spirits will provide protection and luck for their living family members, and families spend a great deal of time and money preparing personal ofrendas for their deceased relatives.

Ofrendas are decorated with flowers, candles, paper cut-outs, calaveras, and calacas. Families also make sure that their loved one's favorite food and drinks are placed on the ofrenda. Shots of alcohol are commonly placed on the ofrenda as it is believed the spirits are thirsty after their long journey from heaven.

Day of the Dead Celebrations in the United States

Though Day of the Dead originated in Mexico, it is widely celebrated through the rest of Central and South America. Most recently the holiday tradition has migrated to the United States in areas with high Hispanic populations. As more Hispanics continue to migrate to the United States, Day of the Dead celebrations are increasingly popular.

In the United States, families may still set up ofrendas in their homes; however the graveyard vigils and associated activities have been replaced with community sponsored events like festivals, parades and art exhibits.

Commercialization of Day of the Dead

Like many holidays Day of the Dead is subject to over-commercialization. In some parts of Mexico, Day of the Dead festivities have evolved from small, family-community holiday to popular tourist attractions. In the United States, calaveras are a popular image for tattoos and folk artwork.

Day of the Dead has deep historical roots, blending Aztec and Catholic rituals. A celebration of life, Day of the Dead is a colorful, joyous occasion that has migrated from Latin America into the United States. However, as with many Western holidays, what was once an intimate family celebration has turned into a profitable opportunity for many businesses.

What is Day of the Dead?