Day of the Dead (El Día
de los Muertos or All Souls' Day) is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and by
Latin Americans living in the
States and Canada.
Day of the Dead "Ofrenda".
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
holidays are celebrated in many parts of the world; for example,
it's a public holiday (Dia de Finados) in Brazil, where many
Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches.
Spain, 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 Philippines, 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. because they
celebrate Halloween as a "scary" holiday, where people will put up
scary decorations and have children knock on doors for
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
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
(originally named cempoalxochitl
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
Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos
, or "the
little angels"), and bottles of tequila
jars of atole
for adults. Families will also
offer trinkets or the deceased's favorite candies on the grave.
are also put in homes, usually with foods such as
candied pumpkin, pan de muerto
of the dead"), sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The
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.
parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people
spend all night beside the graves of their relatives.
many places people have picnics at the gravesite as well.
Some families build altars
or small shrines
in their homes; these usually have the
, 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
figures, with cartoons
in the style of the famous calaveras
of José Guadalupe Posada
, a Mexican
Don Juan Tenorio
are also traditional on this day.
A common symbol
of the holiday is the skull
(colloquially called calavera
which celebrants represent in masks
(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
bread made in various shapes, from
plain rounds to skulls and rabbits
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
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
often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead
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.
example, in the town of Pátzcuaro on the Lago de Pátzcuaro in Michoacán 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
a table in the parents' home with sweets, fruits, pan de
, 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
(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.
contrast, the town of Ocotepec, north of
Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos opens its
doors to visitors in exchange for 'veladoras' (small wax candles)
to show respect for the recently dead.
Pan de muerto, traditionally eaten on the holiday
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
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
, a small gift of candies or money; they also
ask passersby for it. This custom is similar to that of Halloween
, and is relatively
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
[[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
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
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 Texas and Arizona, the
celebrations tend to be mostly traditional. For example, the All
Souls' Procession has been an annual Tucson event since
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
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,
California, 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 Hollywood.
There, in a mixture of Mexican traditions
and Hollywood hip, conventional altars are set up side-by-side with
altars to Jayne Mansfield
. Colorful native dancers
and music intermix with performance
, while sly pranksters
traditional and inter-cultural updating of Mexican celebrations is
occurring in San Francisco, for example through the Galería de la Raza, SomArts Cultural
Center, Mission Cultural Center, de Young Museum 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, Montana, 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 Republic, 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 Zealand, complete with altars celebrating the deceased with
flowers and gifts.
Guatemalan 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.
Ecuador, 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
spiced fruit porridge that derives its deep purple color from the
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.
Brazilian 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.
Haiti, 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.
de los ñatitas (Day of the Skulls) is a festival celebrated in
Paz, Bolivia on November 9.
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
of the Dead), Todos Los Santos
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
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.
Portugal and Spain, ofrendas (offerings) are made
on this day.
In Spain, the play Don Juan Tenorio
traditionally performed. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the
Netherlands, France and Ireland, people bring flowers to the graves of dead
relatives and say prayers over the dead. In Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Norway and
Finland the tradition is to light candles and visit the
graves of deceased relatives. In Tyrol, cakes are left for them on the table and the room
kept warm for their comfort.
, 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
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.
Bon Festival ( or only is a Japanese Buddhist holiday to honor
the departed spirits of one's ancestors.
This Buddhist festival has
evolved into a family reunion
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
Korea, Chuseok is a major
traditional holiday, also called Hankawi (한가위,中秋节).
go where the spirits of one's ancestors are enshrined, and perform
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
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
, 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
(鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits come out from the
underworld to visit earth.
the Nepali 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
novel Under the Volcano
(1947) by Malcolm Lowry takes place on this day in a
fictionalized Cuernavaca, Morelos.
- 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
- 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
- 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"
- 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.
- Making a night of Day of the Dead
Los Angeles Times October 18, 2006. Retrieved November 26,
- Day of the Dead in Prague.
- Observance in Guatemala. Retrieved June 11,
- "One of the many Philipino traditions often
practiced is celebrating All Saints'/Souls' Day or Day of the
Dead." Accessed Nov. 26, 2007.
- All Saints Day celebrations in Italy
- Polish observance. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
- Slovakia observance. Retrieved June 11,
- Hungary observance. Retrieved June 11,
- Lithuanian observance. Retrieved June 11,
- Croatian observance. Retrieved June 11,
- Slovenian observance. Retrieved November 5,
- Romanian observance. Retrieved June 11,
- See All
Saints Day, All Souls Day.
- Nepali holiday honoring the dead. Retrieved
June 11, 2007.
- African ancestor ritual; Importance in many traditional religions throughout
all of Africa serve as communications with ancestors
- _____. "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."
- Carmichael, Elizabeth. Sayer, Chloe. The Skeleton at the
Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Great Britain: The Bath
- 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
- 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.