The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is a Mexican and Mexican-American celebration of dead ancestors which occurs on November 1 and November 2. While it is primarily viewed as a Mexican holiday, it is also celebrated in communities in the United States with large populations of Mexican-Americans, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Latin America. Despite the morbid subject matter, this holiday is celebrated joyfully, and though it occurs at the same time as Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, the mood of The Day of the Dead is much lighter, with the emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, rather than fearing evil or malevolent spirits. The origins of the celebration of The Day of the Dead in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous peoples of Latin America, such as the Aztecs, Mayans Purepecha, Nahua and Totonac.
Rituals celebrating the lives of dead ancestors had been performed by these Mesoamerican civilizations for at least 3,000 years. It was common practice to keep skulls as trophies and display them during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The festival which was to become El Día de los Muertos fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, near the start of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the "Lady of the Dead". The festivities were dedicated to the celebration of children and the lives of dead relatives.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Central America in the 15th
century they were appalled at the indigenous pagan practices, and in an
attempt to convert the locals to Catholicism moved the popular festival
to the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic All Saints
and All Souls days. All Saints Day is the day after Halloween, which was
in turn based on the earlier pagan ritual of Samhain, the Celtic day
and feast of the dead. The Spanish combined their custom of Halloween
with the similar Mesoamerican festival, creating The Day of the Dead.
Many Mexicans bristle at any hint of the relationship between Halloween and The Day of The Dead but the two celebrations are undeniably linked.
The souls of children are believed to return first on November 1, with
adult spirits following on November 2. Plans for the festival are made
throughout the year, including gathering the goods that will be offered
to the dead. During the period of October 31 and November 2 families
usually clean and decorate the graves where their
loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas, or
In some places in Mexico families embellished the tombs of their loved ones for a vigil during the night. The vigil lasts until dawn and includes music, food and drinks at the graveyard. This is a real 'fiesta'!
One of the most important traditions is the set up of an altar in memory of the deceased where the four elements of nature, water, wind, fire (candles) and earth (flowers) are represented. The altar or offerings might include the favorite food of the departed loved ones, such as fruit, traditional Mexican dishes, even booze. Also it is traditional to have photos in the altar of the departed ancestors.
A common symbol of the holiday is the skull, which celebrants represent
in masks called calacas. Sugar skulls, inscribed with the names of the
deceased on the forehead, are often eaten by a relative or friend. Other
special foods for El Día de los Muertos includes Pan de Muertos (bread
of the dead), a round sweet egg bread with bones decorations on top.