For millions of families in Mexico and those of Mexican heritage abroad, the Day of the Dead – Día de los Muertos – is the time when the wall between our world and the spirit world dissolves, and the spirits of the dead can rejoin their families for 24 hours.
With elaborately decorated altars, intricate makeup, and an offering of the deceased’s favorite food and drink, revelers welcome back their family members as honored guests with an elaborate celebration, before the soul of the dead must return to the spirit realm.
The Day of the Dead is a unique holiday to the Mexican people, a time in which life is celebrated and death is recognized as a quintessential part of being human.
What is the Day of the Dead in Spanish?
Day of the Dead translates to Día de los Muertos in Spanish, and that's what you'll commonly hear the holiday called.
Día de los Muertos is a two-day celebration starting at midnight on November 1st. According to folklore, the gates of heaven open, and dead children can join their families for 24 hours. On November 2nd, the spirits of adults can follow suit.
Before the Day of the Dead, the living create ofrendas, or offerings, in honor of the visiting spirits. These are elaborately decorated altars, often adorned with marigold flowers, candles, brightly colored sugar skulls, and photos of the departed.
These ofrendas are highly personalized so that the dead can find their families.
For children, called angelitos (little angels), they might include important items like favorite toys and treats. And for adults, ofrendas will be decorated with traditional Mexican dishes like tamales, mole, and even tequila, as well as items specific to the deceased’s particular tastes, such as their favorite food and drink.
These are not solemn holidays. Rather, the nights are filled with laughter and amusing stories about the dead, in what is often a raucous celebration in their honor. With the ofrenda guiding the deceased home to their family from the realm of the spirits, they can enjoy one last meal with loved ones, as they did when they were alive.
How are Halloween and Day of the Dead Similar?
Some people mistake Day of the Dead for a sort of Mexican Halloween, probably due to the "spooky" name and close proximity on the calendar.
As it turns out, although their origins are totally different, the two holidays do have some elements in common.
Halloween has its roots in the ancient pagan traditions of pre-Christian Europe and traces back to a festival known as Samhain, which was held at the end of October.
During this time, it was believed the veil between the realm of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Sound familiar?
Like the Day of the Dead, Halloween also incorporates images associated with death – skulls, skeletons, etc.
Finally, sugar is an important component of both holidays (albeit, in different forms). Halloween is anticipated by children for the sweet, sweet candy haul that comes with it. Those celebrating Day of the Dead, on the other hand, use sugar to make skulls – usually representing deceased family members – which are then decorated and displayed.
But while there are plenty of similarities, Halloween and Day of the Dead are entirely separate holidays.
And although Halloween growing in popularity in Mexico, it is primarily viewed as a children’s holiday and is typically overshadowed by the Day of the Dead.
What are the Origins of Day of the Dead?
The origins of the Day of the Dead, on the other hand, go back 3,000 years to the Aztecs who once lived in central Mexico.
Believing that life was cyclical, the Aztecs made offerings of food, water, and tools for the dead to assist them on their yearslong journey through the Chicunamictlán, the land of the dead, their final destination being Mictlán, the Aztec underworld.
It is this tradition that the modern Día de los Muertos took great inspiration from.
Day of the Dead is one of the most revered and celebrated holidays in Mexico, but its reach extends far beyond the borders of Mexico. It is also celebrated in the Philippines, many countries in South America, as well as communities in the United States with large Mexican populations, including Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Wherever you are, celebrating the Day of the Dead is a great way to honor the life of your departed loved ones with the people that mattered most to them. It is a spiritual and uniquely Mexican celebration of life – and death.
Feliz Día de los Muertos!