Dia De Los Muertos is a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion which includes drinks, “ofrendas”, and celebrations.
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.
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.
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 Catholic holidays, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on the first two days of November.
So is it the same as Halloween?
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. Ofrendas can be decorated with candles, bright marigolds called cempasuchil and red cock’s combs alongside food like stacks of tortillas and fruit.
Fun facts about Dia De Los Muertos
• The Day of the Dead isn’t just different from Halloween, it’s also potentially much, much older, too. Historians trace its origins back as far as 3,000 years to ancient Mesoamerican festivals dedicated to the goddess of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl.
• The flowers attract ghosts. Cempazuchitl, the official flowers of the Day of the Dead, are used in massive quantities to decorate the graves and altars — a practice that has its roots in pre-Columbian traditions. These flowers (nicknamed el flor del muerto – “the flower of the dead”), sometimes said to represent the sun and rebirth, are also believed to help guide the spirits back home. In English, they are known as Mexican Merigolds.
• Spending a night in the cemetery is commonplace. To Americans, it might sound like a predictable setup to a horror movie, but in some parts of Mexico, spending a night inside a graveyard, picnicking next to a dead family member’s grave, telling stories, listening to music and just generally making merry is all part of the celebration.
• The movie Spectre (James Bond) inspired Mexican officials to have an official Dia De Los Muertos parade after the film came out in 2015. It is estimated that over 400K people attended in 2021!