On the Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos), families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. A blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture, the holiday is celebrated each year on November 1-2.

Origins of Day of the Dead

The roots of the Day of the Dead, celebrated in contemporary Mexico and among those of Mexican heritage in the United States and around the world, go back some 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe, and saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life.

Read more: Human Sacrifice: Why the Aztecs Practiced This Gory Ritual

Upon dying, a person was believed to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Only after getting through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, could the person’s soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place. In Nahua rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members provided food, water and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey. This inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead practice in which people leave food or other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes.

Influence of Catholicism and Spanish Culture

In ancient Europe, pagan celebrations of the dead also took place in the fall, and consisted of bonfires, dancing and feasting. Some of these customs survived even after the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, which (unofficially) adopted them into their celebrations of two minor Catholic holidays, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on the first two days of November.

In medieval Spain, people would bring bring wine and pan de ánimas (spirit bread) to the graves of their loved ones on All Souls Day; they would also cover graves with flowers and light candles to illuminate the dead souls’ way back to their homes on Earth. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores brought such traditions with them to the New World, along with a darker view of death influenced by the devastation of the bubonic plague.

Read more: Rats Didn't Spread the Black Plague—It Was Humans

How Is the Day of the Dead Celebrated?

El Día de los Muertos is not, as is commonly thought, a Mexican version of Halloween, though the two holidays do share some traditions, including costumes and parades. On the Day of the Dead, it’s believed that the border between the spirit world and the real world dissolve. During this brief period, the souls of the dead awaken and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance and play music with their loved ones. In turn, the living family members treat the deceased as honored guests in their celebrations, and leave the deceased’s favorite foods and other offerings at gravesites or on the ofrendas built in their homes.

Read more: Halloween

The most prominent symbols related to the Day of the Dead are calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). In the early 19th century, the printer and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada reenvisioned Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld, as a female skeleton known as La Calavera Catrina, now the most recognizable Day of the Dead icon.

During contemporary Day of the Dead festivities, people commonly wear skull masks and eat sugar candy molded into the shape of skulls. The pan de ánimas of All Souls Day rituals in Spain is reflected in pan de muerto, the traditional sweet baked good of Day of the Dead celebrations today. Other food and drink associated with the holiday, but consumed year-round as well, include spicy dark chocolate and the corn-based liquor called atole.

Movies Featuring Day of the Dead

Traditionally, the Day of the Dead was celebrated largely in the more rural, indigenous areas of Mexico, but starting in the 1980s it began spreading into the cities. UNESCO reflected growing awareness of the holiday in 2008, when it added Mexico’s “indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In recent years, the tradition has developed even more due to its visibility in pop culture and its growing popularity in the United States, where more than 36 million people identified as being of partial or full Mexican ancestry as of 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Inspired by the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre, which featured a large Day of the Dead parade, Mexico City held its first-ever parade for the holiday in 2016. In 2017, a number of major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Fort Lauderdale, held Day of the Dead parades. That November, Disney and Pixar released the blockbuster animated hit Coco, a $175 million homage to the Mexican tradition in which a young boy is transported to the Land of the Dead and meets up with his long-lost ancestors.  

Though the particular customs and scale of Day of the Dead celebrations continue to evolve, the heart of the holiday has remained the same over thousands of years. It’s an occasion for remembering and celebrating those who have passed on from this world, while at the same time portraying death in a more positive light, as a natural part of the human experience.

Sources:

Día de los Muertos: A Brief History, National Hispanic Cultural Center

Dobrin, Isabel, “Día de los Muertos Comes to Life Across the Mexican Diaspora,” NPR, November 2, 2017

Giardina, Carolyn, “‘Coco’: How Pixar Brought its ‘Day of the Dead’ Story to Life,” Hollywood Reporter, December 12, 2017

Scott, Chris. “Day of the Dead parade - Life imitates art,” CNN, October 28, 2016

Mictlantecuhtli, Ancient History Encyclopedia

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