Up until recently, I’d always assumed the Day of the Dead was just another cultural observation of Halloween. I’m almost ashamed to admit that watching Disney’s Coco was my first real venture into the depth and beauty of this cultural tradition. Fortunately, Coco was surprisingly accurate in its depiction of this holiday, but the movie left me wanting to know more.
Today, November 2, Día de los Muertos is being celebrated by hundreds of thousands of people across Latin America. Don’t let this important holiday slip by unnoticed! Join me as we do a little deep-dive into the sweet, joyful celebration known as Día de los Muertos.
Origins of the Day of the Dead
Modern Día de los Muertos celebrations are derived from a combination of Aztec and Catholic traditions. The Aztec people lived in Mexico in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries and had a festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, which literally translates to “Lady of the Dead.” Legend has it that Mictecacihuatl was sacrificed as an infant, grew up in the Underworld, and eventually married Miclantecuhtli (or “Lord of the Land of the Dead”). Together, they guarded the bones of the dead and presided over festivals of the dead.
When the conquistadores came to colonize Mexico in the 16th century, they brought with them a slew of Catholic traditions. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in particular heavily influenced the modern Day of the Dead tradition. These holidays are days set apart to celebrate and pray for the deceased. Día de los Muertos combines this celebration of the dead with the cultural belief that Mictecacihuatl guards the bones of the dead to return them to the land of the living and create new races. The result? A beautiful celebration and remembrance of those who have gone before us, and a tradition that invites the dearly departed back to the land of the living for a 24-hour reunion with loved ones.
Cultural Significance of the Day of the Dead
The concept of celebrating the dead is foreign to many of us in the United States, where remembering the dead is typically a solemn affair. Día de los Muertos, however, draws its celebratory nature from the assumption that the dead would be insulted by sadness and mourning.
Most importantly, Día de los Muertos is a celebration of the day that departed souls can return to their loved ones for 24 hours. It’s a two-day long celebration over November 1-2. The first day is El Día de los Inocentes, or the Day of the Innocents, when souls of departed children can return to their loved ones. November 2 is the more commonly known Día de los Muertos, when all departed souls return from the land of the dead to celebrate with the living for 24 hours.
The Día de los Muertos celebrations really highlight the unique view of death held by its participants. Death is not believed to be a finality or an ending point, but rather is seen as part of the never ending cycle of life. This belief allows Día de los Muertos to truly be a joyful affair, something to look forward to every year.
How the Day of the Dead is Celebrated Today
The above video is a beautiful depiction of the modern Día de los Muertos tradition. It’s a holiday centered around food, family, and celebratory reunion. Families of the deceased will make their relatives’ favorite food and offer them up on ofrendas, which are individual altars dedicated to each deceased family member. Ofrendas also consist of pictures of the deceased, items of theirs, flowers, and anything else that holds special meaning to their memory.
Calaveras and calacas (skulls and skeletons, respectively) also play a huge role in the aesthetic of this holiday, and are much of the reason why the Day of the Dead is so often seen as a counterpart to Halloween. Many Día de los Muertos participants paint their faces to resemble skulls as part of the celebration, and depictions of skeletons (usually in comical or joyful situations) can be seen throughout the festivities.
You can read more about specific Día de los Muertos traditions here.
Can I Celebrate the Day of the Dead?
By now, you may be wondering if you can participate in this beautiful tradition. The short answer is yes — but be careful of cultural appropriation!
The best way to celebrate cultural traditions such as Día de los Muertos in a way that honors and respects the significance of the tradition is to become knowledgeable about the tradition itself. If you choose to dress up, understand the significance of your clothing. When you’re preparing for the celebration, use that as an opportunity to support Mexican artists and businesses. Take the time to honor the departed ones in your own family, and to bring your family closer together by participating in Día de los Muertos activities and honoring the deceased together. You can find more about avoiding cultural appropriation of this holiday here.
We hope this was a helpful introduction to this rich cultural tradition! Did you learn anything new? Does your family celebrate Día de los Muertos? Let us know in the comments below!
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