Not to be confused for the “Mexican version of Halloween”, Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is a holiday of its own— and a very important one in the Mexican culture. Although the two festive days fall side-by-side on the calendar (Día de los Muertos begins October 31st and ends on November 2nd), the nature and celebration of the two couldn’t be more different! Día de los Muertos is actually a celebration of life, not death.
The origin of the holiday of remembrance roots back to a combination of an ancient Aztec ritual and catholicism (the most popular religion in Mexico). In ancient Mesoamerica, Indigenous people had certain days of the year dedicated to honoring their loved ones who had passed. The arrival of the Spanish, brought Catholicism and the combination of this Indigenous ritual with the Catholic holidays All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day— which fall on November 1st and 2nd, respectively.
As we mentioned, Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life— filled with food, drinks, music, gatherings, and anything else that the deceased family member enjoyed during their life. The entire purpose of the day is to recognize that death is simply a part of life and that those who pass away will never be forgotten, because although they may no longer be here with us, they remain in our hearts.
In order to get to know the Day of the Dead a little better, we’ve made a mini-Día de los Muertos dictionary explaining some important elements of the holiday!
- Ofrenda (Altar) - Considered the most recognizable symbol of Day of the Dead, the ofrenda serves as a family’s way to honor their loved ones who have passed. Each ofrenda includes an altar displaying photos of the loved one(s), accompanied by items that belonged to the family member(s) or items that remind the family of them-- items can range from food, to beverages, to prized possessions. The ofrenda not only serves as a way to honor the deceased, but also as a way to welcome them back home.
- Calavera (Sugar Skull) - During Dia de los Muertos, calaveras are brightly decorated and displayed acting out scenes of daily life to serve as a reminder of the cycle of life— our souls continue to flourish in the after life. The decorative skulls come in many forms including toys, paintings, and sugar.
- Cempasúchil (Marigold) - Despite being such a bright and beautiful flower, cempasúchil are known as the “flower of the dead.” With their vibrant colors and strong smell, Marigolds are believed to help guide the spirits to their ofrendas on Dia de los Muertos-- the petals are often laid out in a path leading to the altars.
- Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly) - Monarch butterflies are believed to carry the returning spirits of the departed. This belief developed from the fact that monarch butterflies first arrived to Mexico on November 1st, Dia de los Muertos.
- Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) - A traditional Mexican sweet bread that is baked and enjoyed in the weeks leading up to Dia de los Muertos and on the day of celebration. An important part of the altar, Pan de Muerto is a butter-based flaky roll decorated with bone-shaped pieces to represent the bodies of the deceased.