Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated mostly in Latin America. The tradition honors the dead through festivals, celebrations, and other ceremonies. Combining both local indigenous rituals with Catholicism, this is a unique way to pay tribute to deceased ancestors.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Day of the Dead and Why Is it Celebrated?
- When Is Day of the Dead?
- Day of the Dead Traditions and Activities
- What Holidays Are Related to Day of the Dead?
- Frequently Asked Questions: Day of the Dead
The way people deal with death in different cultures doesn’t always look the same. In places like the United States, we see death as a somber, sad affair. In Latin America, the opposite is true. Death is accepted as a part of life, and the souls of those we love are never that far away.
In this guide, we’ll explore the infamous Day of the Dead celebration to see how people in this part of the world remember a family member with fun and excitement.
What Is Day of the Dead and Why Is it Celebrated?
The history behind the Day of the Dead is steeped in religion, tradition, and culture. In many ways, this holiday is a way for families to overcome feelings of sadness while coming together.
History and origins
The history of Day of the Dead goes back thousands of years to the Aztec empire. The Aztecs and other indigenous people lived in what's now central Mexico, and they considered death a normal part of life.
When people of this culture died, they were believed to travel to Chicunamictlan, the Land of the Dead. They’d continue through nine levels of challenges until they reached their final resting place, and the entire process took years.
In August of each year, these ancient people performed different rituals honoring their dead. Family members gift food, water, and other tools as a way to help their ancestors complete their journey to their final resting place. Today, this tradition of leaving offerings for the dead is still common.
This yearly celebration isn’t limited to the Aztec tradition. In ancient Europe, pagans celebrated at the same time of year in honor of the changing seasons. They’d dance, feast, and light bonfires. The Catholic religion adopted this holiday as All Saints’ Day and All Souls' Day, which are celebrated on the first two days of November.
To celebrate, people in Spain brought wine and bread to their loved one’s graves on All Souls Day. Spanish explorers brought these Catholic holidays and traditions to the New World, and Day of the Dead was born.
Where it’s celebrated
While Day of the Dead spread throughout most of Latin America, the largest celebrations are held in Mexico since this is where the tradition originated. However, it’s not unusual to see these celebrations throughout the world.
The similar tradition of All Souls’ Day is common in Europe and other parts of the world where Catholicism is a leading religion. In addition, this holiday is very popular in the United States within Mexican communities. The largest celebrations are in cities with large populations of Mexican Americans, including San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Albuquerque.
When Is the Day of the Dead?
The Day of the Dead falls on the same days every year. The entire celebration begins on October 31, also known as Halloween. This is also known as All Hallow’s Eve, and it’s the day when the doors between the human world and the spirit world open. November 1 is then All Saints Day, or the day to honor saints.
Finally, November 2 is All Souls Day or the Day of the Dead. This is when the largest celebrations take place in honor of deceased loved ones. However, these death-focused traditions are a large part of the entire three-day holiday.
Day of the Dead Traditions and Activities
As seen in Mexican funeral traditions, this is a culture built on the acceptance of death. Day of the Dead is a time to remember the dead, and to welcome their spirits back into your life and home.
Parades are one of the most well-known parts of Day of the Dead. These are the pictures most often seen online, and they’re easy to recognize. Thousands of people crowd the streets of Mexico City, progressing in their skull face paint and colorful outfits.
This parade is known as the Catrina parade or skull parade. Music, singing, and dancing are all a large part of the procession. It’s a giant celebration of death through life, and it’s a spectacular sight to witness.
While this parade tradition is mainly located in Mexico City, there are similar parades held in all corners of the globe, especially the United States.
One of the biggest traditions for Day of the Dead is visiting the gravesite. The family visits the grave, pulls weeds, cleans debris, and decorates the gravesite. This is a small way to honor the dead and show respect to one’s ancestors.
Unlike in the United States, most graves in Mexico are publicly owned or are under the ownership of the church. As such, it’s expected for the families of the deceased to maintain the graves.
The family leaves candles, flowers, and the favorite foods of the deceased on the grave as a form of offering. In some parts of Mexico, it’s common to offer alcohol and salt as well. These visits are often very long. The family will visit, eat, sing, and tell stories about their ancestors. This truly is a family event, and it’s common to see lively parties in cemeteries.
In other parts of the world like the United States, visiting the grave might not be possible. People adapted the tradition to suit their needs. In this case, many people use at-home altars or community altars to honor their dead without needing to visit the actual grave.
Read our guide on grave decorations for tips, tricks, and Day of the Dead grave decoration ideas.
Families build altars in their homes in honor of the dead. While these are most common for those who aren’t able to visit the graves of their family members, many people choose to create their own at-home altars. They are sometimes built right at the gravesite.
These are sometimes complex constructions, taking months to build. These altars are piled high with ofrendas or offerings to the dead. Family members offer candles, flowers, personal possessions, and other special things in honor of their ancestors.
Sugar skulls and other popular imagery
You’ve likely seen sugar skulls in stores near you, and they’ve become a year-round visual in many parts of the world. However, this term and image actually come from the Day of the Dead festivities. It’s one of the most iconic symbols of this festival and also Mexico in general.
Family members make these skulls or buy them to place them on the altar of loved ones. They’re made of sugar, but they can also be made of chocolate and other sweet treats. This is where they get the name. Traditionally, families use icing to write the name of a deceased family member on the head of the skull.
Another popular symbol of the Day of the Dead is Calacas. These are colorful skeleton figurines you’ve likely also seen before, though they’re not as recognizable as sugar skulls. During Day of the Dead, you’ll find these just about everywhere. Some are simple, while others are dressed in traditional Mexican styles.
Typical food and drink
Like most celebrations in Mexico, there’s a huge focus on food and drink. While traditional Mexican cuisine is a staple of this holiday, you’ll also find special treats just for this time of year.
Aside from sugar skulls, most people eat pan de muerto. While the name might imply this is a sinister snack, it’s really a delicious orange-flavored sweet bread.
Other than pan de muerto, local regions have their own favorites like tamales, churros, mole, enchiladas, and other candies. It’s also common to drink mojitos, tequila, and other fun cocktails. It’s all about enjoying the best of the party with friends and family.
Last but not least, this is a time for storytelling. One of the most loved customs is to share stories and memories of the deceased. These stories are usually upbeat or humorous in nature since it’s believed they would have wanted to be remembered cheerfully.
Because most families do their storytelling intimately, this isn’t something as widely shared about Day of the Dead, it dates back to the oral storytelling tradition in Mexico. If you’re going to a Day of the Dead party, be sure to bring lots of stories of your own.
What Holidays Are Related to Day of the Dead?
Though most people are familiar with Day of the Dead, it’s easy to confuse this tradition with similar holidays. There are many days for honoring the dead throughout the globe, and some of these overlap with each other.
Most confuse Day of the Dead with All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and Obon. Exploring how other cultures honor the dead is one of the best ways to understand the world.
All Saints’ Day
First, All Saints’ Day is on November 1st. This is also sometimes called All Hallows’ Day of the Feast of All Saints. This is a holiday within the Christian church. As the name implies, this is a day for honoring all saints, both known and unknown. While some saints have their own special day, All Saints’ Day is for any that might not be celebrated at other times of the year.
In the Christian faith, the ties between heaven and the world of the living are known to be closer during this holiday. People gather, pray, and feast in honor of the saints and their acts of kindness. Though lesser known than Day of the Dead, All Saints’ Day has a similar focus on honoring the dead.
All Souls’ Day
Next, All Souls’ Day is the day after All Saints’ Day on November 2nd. Also a Christian holiday, this is a day of remembrance for the souls of those who have died. Dead loved ones are honored in a variety of ways, usually with prayers, storytelling, and feasting.
All Souls’ Day also has a connection to the Christian belief in purgatory. Purgatory is seen as existing between Heaven and Hell. By praying for those in purgatory on All Souls’ Day, Christians encourage them to pass along to Heaven.
In Japan, there’s a similar celebration to Day of the Dead known as Obon. The Obon festival is a time to honor deceased ancestors and make offerings at family altars. Celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, this summer holiday is a traditional part of Japanese Buddhist culture.
During Obon, it’s believed that the dead revisit the land of the living. Like Day of the Dead, people hang lights, light bonfires, and hold celebrations to welcome the dead back to their homes.
Frequently Asked Questions: Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead has risen in popularity throughout the past few years, and it’s common to have questions about this special day. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the day of the dead.
Who or what countries celebrate Day of the Dead?
Which countries celebrate the Day of the Dead? While most associate Day of the Dead with Mexico, this isn’t the only place that celebrates this special holiday. Other Latin American countries like Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Peru.
Additionally, as Latin American communities continue to grow throughout the world, it’s common to see Day of the Dead celebrations in unexpected places. Communities in North America and Europe have begun holding their own Day of the Dead celebrations.
What are common Day of the Dead greetings?
Are there any common Day of the Dead greetings used to mark the holiday? While these vary depending on where you’re celebrating, it’s common for people to gift each other sugar skulls as a way of greeting. For example, kids will greet others by saying “Me da mi calaverito,” or “Give me my skull.”
How long does Day of the Dead last?
Though known as Day of the Dead, it’s actually a two-day festival. Throughout these two days, people enjoy festivities and celebrations. Preparations for Day of the Dead often start a few days prior to the actual day, so this is a drawn-out activity for all to enjoy. Though most of the fun happens when the sun goes down, this is a multi-day celebration.
What is Cempazuchitl in Day of the Dead?
There are a lot of terms related to Day of the Dead that you might not be familiar with. Cempazuchitl is a yellow marigold that symbolizes death. During Day of the Dead, candy and sweets are made in the shape of this flower as a way to honor the dead.
Similarly, this flower is used to create incense used during the celebration. This is one of many symbols you’ll discover during the Day of the Dead. Though Marigolds might sound simple, flowers have rich meanings in many different cultures. These beautiful images symbolize both life, death, and everything in between.
Take Part in a Festival of Death
Of all of Mexican’s holidays and events, Day of the Dead is the most well-known. These symbols of vibrant skulls and exciting graveyards are recognized across the globe. As more and more people look into the history and tradition of Day of the Dead, more people begin to think openly about their own deceased loved ones and relationship with death.
This tradition shows the importance of celebrating the best of life while also not shying away from death. Living life to the fullest means knowing how to make hard decisions about the future. Start end-of-life planning today to prepare for your future, whatever it may bring.
- “Dia de los Muertos.” National Geographic. NationalGeographic.org.
- Keenan, Donald. “Dia de Los Muertos.” University of New York Albany. Albany.edu.