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Day of the Dead "Ofrenda".

The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos or All Souls' Day) is a holiday celebrated in Mexicomarker and by Latin Americans living in the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration occurs on November 1st, and 2nd in connection with the Catholic holiday of All Saints' Day which occurs on November 1st and All Souls' Day which occurs on November 2nd. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts.

Scholars trace the origins of the modern holiday to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years, and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl.

Similar holidays are celebrated in many parts of the world; for example, it's a public holiday (Dia de Finados) in Brazilmarker, where many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spainmarker, there are festivals and parades, and at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their loved ones who have died. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe and in the Philippinesmarker, and similarly-themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.

Due to its time being close to Halloween, The "Day of the Dead" is commonly thought to be similar to Halloween, although the two holidays actually have little in common. The "Day of the Dead" is a time of celebration, where partying is very common, although this is not very well understood in the U.S.marker because they celebrate Halloween as a "scary" holiday, where people will put up scary decorations and have children knock on doors for candy. It can also be the same vice-versa.

Observance in Mexico


The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2500–3000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.

The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the "Lady of the Dead," corresponding to the modern Catrina.

In most regions of Mexico, November 1 honors children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as "Día de los Inocentes" (Day of the Innocents) but also as "Día de los Angelitos" (Day of the Little Angels) and November 2 as "Día de los Muertos" or "Día de los Difuntos" (Day of the Dead).


People go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, and build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.

Plans for the day are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the 3-day period, families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas (offerings), which often include orange marigolds called "cempasúchitl" (originally named cempoalxochitl, Nahuatl for "twenty (i.e., many) flowers"). In modern Mexico, this name is sometimes replaced with the term "Flor de Muerto" ("Flower of the Dead"). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.

Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or "the little angels"), and bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased's favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the "spiritual essence" of the ofrendas food, so even though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaromarker and Janitziomarker, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places people have picnics at the gravesite as well.

Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes; these usually have the Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other persons, scores of candles and an ofrenda. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar, praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing, so that when they dance, the noise will wake up the dead; some will also dress up as the deceased.

Public schools at all levels build altars with ofrendas, usually omitting the religious symbols. Government offices usually have at least a small altar, as this holiday is seen as important to the Mexican heritage.

Those with a distinctive talent for writing sometimes create short poems, called "calaveras" ("skulls"), mocking epitaphs of friends, describing interesting habits and attitudes or funny anecdotes. This custom originated in the 18th-19th century, after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, "and all of us were dead", proceeding to "read" the tombstones. Newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla (1817–1893) are also traditional on this day.
A common symbol of the holiday is the skull (colloquially called calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (colloquial term for "skeleton"), and foods such as sugar or chocolate skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls are gifts that can be given to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes, from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, for celebrating this "fiesta" often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.

José Guadalupe Posada created a famous print of a figure that he called "La Calavera de la Catrina" ("calavera of the female dandy"), as a parody of a Mexican upper class female. Posada's striking image of a costumed female with a skeleton face has become associated with the Day of the Dead, and Catrina figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances.

The traditions and activities that take place in celebration of the Day of the Dead are not universal and often vary from town to town. For example, in the town of Pátzcuaromarker on the Lago de Pátzcuaromarker in Michoacánmarker the tradition is very different if the deceased is a child rather than an adult. On November 1 of the year after a child's death, the godparents set a table in the parents' home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, a cross, a Rosary (used to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for them) and candles. This is meant to celebrate the child's life, in respect and appreciation for the parents. There is also dancing with colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped masks and devil masks in the plaza or garden of the town. At midnight on November 2, the people light candles and ride winged boats called mariposas (Spanish for "butterflies") to Janitzio, an island in the middle of the lake where there is a cemetery, to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead there.
Pan de muerto, traditionally eaten on the holiday
In contrast, the town of Ocotepec, north of Cuernavacamarker in the State of Morelosmarker opens its doors to visitors in exchange for 'veladoras' (small wax candles) to show respect for the recently dead. In return, the visitors receive tamales and 'atole'. This is only done by the owners of the house where somebody in the household has died in the previous year. Many people of the surrounding areas arrive early to eat for free and enjoy the elaborate altars set up to receive the visitors from 'Mictlán'.

In some parts of the country (especially the cities, where in recent years there are displaced other customs) children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people's doors, for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. This custom is similar to that of Halloween's trick-or-treating, and is relatively recent.

Some people believe that possessing "Día de los Muertos" items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them. They also clean their houses and prepare the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones to place upon their altar or ofrenda.

Observances outside Mexico

United States

[[Image:Day of the Dead LA.png|thumb|175px|Alt=Los Angeles Day of the Dead altar|A Day of the Dead altar in Los Angeles pays homage to "dead"(cancelled) television shows, with traditional marigolds, sugar skulls and candles.]][[Image:Day of the Dead altar.jpg|thumb|left|175px|Alt=Atlanta Day of the Dead altar|Day of the Dead altar in Atlanta in memory ofJennifer Ann Crecente, murdered at the age of 18 by her ex-boyfriend.]]
Alt=Gathering of people at San Francisco's Day of the Dead
In many US communities with peoples from Mexico, Day of the Dead celebrations are held, very similar to those held in Mexico. In some of these communities, such as in Texasmarker and Arizonamarker, the celebrations tend to be mostly traditional. For example, the All Souls' Procession has been an annual Tucsonmarker event since 1990. The event combines elements of traditional Dia de los Muertos celebrations with those of pagan harvest festivals. People wearing masks carry signs honoring the dead and an urn in which people can put slips of paper with prayers on them to be burned.

In other communities, interactions between Mexican traditions and American culture are resulting in celebrations in which Mexican traditions are being extended to make artistic or sometimes political statements. For example, in Los Angeles, Californiamarker, the Self Help Graphics & Art Mexican-American cultural center presents an annual Day of the Dead celebration, that includes both traditional and political elements, such as altars to honor the victims of the Iraq War highlighting the high casualty rate among Latino soldiers. An updated, inter-cultural version of the Day of the Dead is also evolving at a cemetery near Hollywoodmarker. There, in a mixture of Mexican traditions and Hollywood hip, conventional altars are set up side-by-side with altars to Jayne Mansfield and Johnny Ramone. Colorful native dancers and music intermix with performance artists, while sly pranksters play on traditional themes.

Similar traditional and inter-cultural updating of Mexican celebrations is occurring in San Franciscomarker, for example through the Galería de la Raza, SomArts Cultural Center, Mission Cultural Center, de Young Museummarker and Garfield Square. In Oakland at the Oakland Museum and with classes in the ancient art of Cartoneria at The Crucible, a local arts education center, and in Missoula, Montanamarker, where skeletal celebrants on stilts, novelty bicycles, and skis parade through town. It also occurs annually at historic Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Sponsored by Forest Hills Educational Trust and the folkloric performance group La Piñata, the Day of the Dead celebration celebrates the cycle of life and death. People bring offerings of flowers, photos, mementos, mentos, and food for their departed loved ones which they place at an elaborately and colorfully decorated altar. A program of traditional music and dance also accompanies the community event.

Europe and elsewhere

Observance of a Mexican-style Day of the Dead has spread to Europe as well. In Prague, Czech Republicmarker, for example, local citizens celebrate the Day of the Dead with masks, candles, and sugar skulls. Mexican-style Day of the Dead celebrations can also be found in Wellington, New Zealandmarker, complete with altars celebrating the deceased with flowers and gifts.

Latin America

Guatemalanmarker celebrations of the Day of the Dead are highlighted by the construction and flying of giant kites in addition to the traditional visits to gravesites of ancestors. A big event also is the consumption of fiambre that is made only for this day during the year.

In Ecuadormarker, the Day of the Dead is observed to some extent by all parts of society, though it is especially important to the indigenous Kichwa peoples who make up an estimated quarter of the population. Indigena families gather together in the community cemetery with offerings of food for a day-long remembrance of their ancestors and lost loved ones. Ceremonial foods include colada morada, a spiced fruit porridge that derives its deep purple color from the Andean blackberry and purple maize. This is typically consumed with guagua de pan, a bread shaped like a swaddled infant, though variations include horses and pigs — the latter being traditional to the city of Loja. The bread, which is wheat flour-based today but was made with cornmeal in the pre-Columbian era can be made savory with cheese inside, or sweet with a filling of guava paste. These traditions have permeated into mainstream society as well, where food establishments add both colada morada and gaugua de pan to their menus for the season. Many non-indigenous Ecuadorians partake in visiting the graves of the deceased and preparing the traditional foods as well.

The Brazilianmarker public holiday of "Finados" (Day of the Dead) is celebrated on November 2. Similar to other Day of the Dead celebrations, people go to cemeteries and churches, with flowers, candles, and prayer. The celebration is intended to be positive, to celebrate those who are deceased.

In Haitimarker, voodoo traditions mix with Roman Catholic Day of the Dead observances, as, for example, loud drums and music are played at all-night celebrations at cemeteries to waken Baron Samedi, the Loa of the dead, and his mischievous family of offspring, the Gede.

Dia de los ñatitas (Day of the Skulls) is a festival celebrated in La Pazmarker, Boliviamarker on November 9. In pre-Columbian times, indigenous Andeans had a tradition of sharing a day with the bones of their ancestors on the third year after burial, however only the skulls are used today. Traditionally, the skull of one or more family members are kept at home to watch over the family and protect them during the year. On November 9, the family crowns the skull with fresh flowers, sometimes also dressing it up in various garments, and makes offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol, and various other items in thanks for the year's protection. The skulls are also sometimes taken to the central cemetery in La Paz for a special mass and blessing.


Flowers, including Mexican marigolds, used in the celebration of the Day of the Dead

In the Philippines, the holiday is Araw ng mga Patay (Day of the Dead), Todos Los Santos or Undas (the latter two due to the fact that this holiday is celebrated on November 1, All Saints Day), and has more of a "family reunion" atmosphere. Tombs are cleaned or repainted, candles are lit, and flowers are offered. Entire families camp in cemeteries, and sometimes spend a night or two near their relatives' tombs. Card games, eating, drinking, singing and dancing are common activities in the cemetery. It is considered a very important holiday by many Filipinos (after Christmas and Holy Week), and additional days are normally given as special non-working holidays (but only November 1 is a regular holiday).


In many countries with a Roman Catholic heritage, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have long been holidays where people take the day off work, go to cemeteries with candles and flowers, and give presents to children, usually sweets and toys. In Portugalmarker and Spain, ofrendas (offerings) are made on this day. In Spain, the play Don Juan Tenorio is traditionally performed. In Spain, Portugal, Italymarker, Belgiummarker, the Netherlandsmarker, Francemarker and Irelandmarker, people bring flowers to the graves of dead relatives and say prayers over the dead. In Polandmarker, Slovakiamarker, Hungarymarker, Lithuaniamarker, Croatiamarker, Sloveniamarker, Romaniamarker, Austriamarker, Germanymarker, Swedenmarker, Norwaymarker and Finlandmarker the tradition is to light candles and visit the graves of deceased relatives. In Tyrolmarker, cakes are left for them on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the tombstone with holy water or to pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls.

Other similar cultural traditions

Many other cultures around the world have similar traditions of a day set aside to visit the graves of deceased family members. Often included in these traditions are celebrations, food and beverages, in addition to prayers and remembrances of the departed.

The Bon Festival ( or only is a Japanesemarker Buddhist holiday to honor the departed spirits of one's ancestors. This Buddhist festival has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people from the big cities return to their home towns and visit and clean their ancestors' graves. Traditionally including a dance festival, it has existed in Japan for more than 500 years. This holiday is three days in August.

In Koreamarker, Chuseok is a major traditional holiday, also called Hankawi (한가위,中秋节). People go where the spirits of one's ancestors are enshrined, and perform ancestral worship rituals early in the morning; they visit the tombs of immediate ancestors to trim plants and clean the area around the tomb, and offer food, drink, and crops to their ancestors.

The Qingming Festival ( ) is a traditional Chinese festival usually occurring around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar. Along with Double Ninth Festival on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese calendar, it is a time to tend to the graves of departed ones. In addition, in the Chinese tradition, the seventh month in the Chinese calendar is called the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits come out from the underworld to visit earth.

During the Nepalimarker holiday of Gai Jatra ("Cow Pilgrimage"), every family who has lost a family member during the previous year makes a construction of bamboo branches, cloth, paper decorations and portraits of the deceased, called a "gai". Traditionally, a cow leads the spirits of the dead into the next land. Depending on local custom, either an actual live cow, or a construct representing a cow may be used. The festival is also a time to dress up in costume, including costumes involving political comments and satire.

In some cultures in Africa, visits to the graves of ancestors, the leaving of food and gifts, and the asking of protection serve as important parts of traditional rituals. One example of this is the ritual that occurs just before the beginning of hunting season.

In some tribes of the amazon they believe that the dead return as flowers rather than butterflies.

References in popular culture

  • The novel Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry takes place on this day in a fictionalized Cuernavaca, Morelosmarker.
  • Ray Bradbury's novel The Halloween Tree (1972) includes an explanation of the holiday as part of a greater worldwide tradition, and features a Mexican sugar skull as a plot device.
  • The character of Death in the novel Candy Skulls by McKenzie Maclaine makes many mentions to Dia de los Muertos being the only time where death is honored instead of feared.
  • Barbara Hambly's novel Days Of The Dead (2003) climaxes on this day in 1835.
  • The film Once Upon a Time in Mexico, directed by Robert Rodriguez, takes place in the days leading up to the Day of the Dead, culminating in numerous acts of violence on the holiday itself.
  • The plot and title of the first episode of the Adult Swim series The Venture Bros., "Dia de Los Dangerous!", takes place on this day. The series' titular characters, Hank and Dean Venture, purchase sombreros and sugar skulls, then Hank describes the events to their father, who has just given a lecture to a very small audience, due in part to the holiday.
  • The computer game Grim Fandango (1998) relies heavily on Day of the Dead imagery, with most characters resembling Calaca-like figurines.
  • The Tim Burton film Corpse Bride (2005) shows a scene where town people are surprised to discover their deceased loved ones among calaca-like characters and thus take the oportunity to reunite again and have a family moment with the departed. This is reminiscent to similar beliefs that are the basis for the Mexican "Day of the Dead" celebration.
  • The computer game World of Warcraft added in 2009 a in-game event with the same name and similar unique items related to this celebration, only accesible between november 1 and 2.

See also


  1. Making a night of Day of the Dead Los Angeles Times October 18, 2006. Retrieved November 26, 2006.
  2. Day of the Dead in Prague.
  3. Observance in Guatemala. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  4. "One of the many Philipino traditions often practiced is celebrating All Saints'/Souls' Day or Day of the Dead." Accessed Nov. 26, 2007.
  5. All Saints Day celebrations in Italy
  6. Polish observance. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  7. Slovakia observance. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  8. Hungary observance. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  9. Lithuanian observance. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  10. Croatian observance. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  11. Slovenian observance. Retrieved November 5, 2007.
  12. Romanian observance. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  13. See All Saints Day, All Souls Day.
  14. Nepali holiday honoring the dead. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  15. African ancestor ritual; Importance in many traditional religions throughout all of Africa serve as communications with ancestors

Further reading

  • _____. "The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity." Journal of American Folklore 442 (1998) : 359-80.
  • _____. "Sugar, Colonialism, and Death: On the Origins of Mexico's Day of the Dead" Comparative Studies in Sociology and History 39.2 (1997): 270-299
  • _____. "Iconogaphy in Mexico's Day of the Dead." Ethnohistory 45.2(1998):181-218
  • Carmichael, Elizabeth. Sayer, Chloe. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Great Britain: The Bath Press, 1991.
  • Conklin, Paul. "Death Takes A Holiday." U.S. Catholic 66 (2001) : 38-41.
  • Garcia-Rivera, Alex. "Death Takes a Holiday." U.S. Catholic 62 (1997) : 50.
  • Lomnitz, Claudio. Death and the Idea of Mexico. Zone Books, 2005.
  • Roy, Ann. "A Crack Between the Worlds." Commonwealth 122 (1995) : 13-16
  • Shawn D. Haley and Curt Fukuda Day of the Dead: When Two Worlds Meet in Oaxaca, Berhahn Books, 2004.

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