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Dia de los Muertos - Celebrating the Day of the Dead

A Mexican Holiday Becomes a New Way to Remember Those Who Have Died


Dia de los Muertos

Mexican Culture Museum Window - Austin, TX

Photo: Elizabeth R. Mitchell
Updated October 22, 2009
All Saints Day and Day of the Dead

At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Catholic feast of All Saints Day (November 1st) was combined with the traditions and festivities that were long-time customs of the indigenous people. While traditions may have changed in different geographical locations, the religious (Catholic) fact is that November 1st is All Saints Day and November 2nd is All Souls Day.

The indigenous people already had a long tradition of honoring their ancestors and deceased loved ones with processions and festivals involving flowers, fruits and incense. Some say that the Spaniards found these rituals to be mocking death, and that they tried their best to eliminate the practices. Nowdays, we realize that the Day of the Dead is a day to honor the dead. Today, in homes, churches, cemeteries, and public places, traditional "offrendas," altars with offerings to the dead, invite beloved souls to visit the living. At these altars you will see photographs of the dead and offerings of food, amulets and flowers. Since the Spanish could not eradicate the native celebration, combining it with All Saints Day seemed an excellent compromise.

Often on the Day of the Dead, you will see Mexican families head for the cemeteries to paint, decorate and otherwise tend the graves of their departed family members. In some towns this takes on a carnival atmosphere with sales of cotton candy and mariachi music.

Aztec Roots

The Aztecs celebrated those who died on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August. This important event was celebrated for the entire month.

Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic tradition, it still maintains some basic principles of an Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls. Skulls were kept and were used to symbolize death and rebirth and to honor the dead. The indigenous cultures believed that death was a continuation of life but in another world and was not something to be feared. So their use of skeletons and skulls during Day of the Dead was not meant to scare people, just to honor those who have passed on to the next world. Just before the Day of the Dead is celebrated, it is interesting to walk into a Mexican bakery and find skull cakes and skeleton designs on the sweets.

Day of the Dead and Halloween

The Day of the Dead celebrations are very close to Halloween time, October 31st. But as our Spanish Language writer, Gerald Ericsen, explains, the customs have different origins, and their attitudes toward death are different. In the typical Halloween festivities, death is something to be feared. But in el día de los muertos, death — or at least the memories of those who have died — is something to be celebrated.

You, Too Can Celebrate Day of the Dead

Anyone can celebrate the Day of the Dead, and increasing numbers of Anglos who live in the Southwest are taking notice of the customs of honoring those they love and revere. Any family can make an altar to the memory of a loved one and it doesn't necessarily have to be a religious observance. It is a time to pause and think of those who have died and to use creativity in putting together an altar or even a shelf with photos, favorite momentos and offerings of flowers or food. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. Here is an example of an altar made by a Mexican family. Some people have even developed altars for people outside their families that they wish to recognize such as the 9/ll victims or victims of child abuse and neglect.

More Ideas for Day of the Dead

Our Mexican Cuisine writer, has a recipe for Pan de Muerto, a sweet bread used on Day of the Dead as an offering.The bread called Pan de Muerto or "bread of the dead," is usually sweet with decorations resembling bones. Even if you don’t celebrate Las dias de las Muertas yourself, you can still enjoy this delicious sweet bread. A recipe for the sweet drink, Atole is also traditional for Day of the Dead. Atole is used on Dia de los Muertos altars and enjoyed throughout October to remember the dead. Here are more food ideas for Day of the Dead.

My favorite food and craft idea for Day of the Dead is the making of Sugar Skulls. According to our Mexican Food writer, The skulls are Mexican folk art used to honor the deceased during the Day of the Dead holiday and they also make unique Halloween decorations. Children love to help make and decorate the skulls so they make a great craft idea too.

Day of the Dead and Muertos Folk Art

Kathy Cano Murillo, the Crafty Chica, and her husband Patrick have a great line of muertos art and a page dedicated to Dia de los Muertos.

Our Cross Stitch writer has come up with a great Day of the Dead skull Cross Stitch pattern and... it's free! Make one for next November.

A New American Holiday?

The Day of the Dead can be a time for personal memories or even time for a political statement. As the Day of the Dead customs develop within the cultures of the United States new traditions will evolve.

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