What is the Day of the Dead?

What is the Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a Mexican holiday that has gained worldwide recognition, especially in recent years, thanks to films like Disney’s Coco, The Book of Life, and the James Bond film, Spectre. It is a public holiday in Mexico, and in 2008, the holiday was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Day of the Dead costume

This multi-day holiday is a time during which friends and family come together to celebrate and remember their loved ones who have passed on to the spirit world. Of course, that’s the short version. This is a holiday rich with history, mixing indigenous roots with a bit of a Catholic influence, resulting in a celebration that’s truly unique and one-of-a-kind, a fact that’s revealed by its multiple traditions.

There are special costumes worn on this holiday, as well as foods that are traditionally reserved for this celebration, but the main tradition? The altars the living make for the spirits of the loved ones, upon which gifts and offerings are placed in order to guide them back to the Earthly realm for their annual visit.

 day of the dead celebrations

Though the holiday may be perceived to be somber in nature, it’s actually anything but! In Mexican culture, death is regarded as a natural part of the human cycle, something to appreciate and respect rather than fear. And so, although festivities may vary depending on the region of Mexico in which Día de los Muertos is being celebrated, one thing certainly remains true - Day of the Dead celebrations are joyous and lively, full of colour and light.

Day of the Dead celebration

What day is Day of the Dead?

Although it is referred to as the Day of the Dead, festivities are actually spread out over a couple of days. On midnight of All Hallow’s Eve (October 31st), it is believed that the gates of Heaven open, allowing the spirits of children who have passed to visit with their living family members for the duration of November 1st (All Saint’s Day). Then, on November 2nd, spirits of the deceased who died as adults are allowed to come down and spend quality time with their loved ones, as well as enjoy the offerings that have been laid out for them on their altars.

Day of the Dead History

The Day of the Dead has a history rooted in the ancient traditions of the pre-Columbian cultures that last inhabited Mexico many centuries ago, from which the unique way in which Mexicans view death likely developed. Rituals celebrating death among these cultures go as far back as three thousand years. Evidence in the holiday’s deeply embedded history lies in some of today’s lasting traditions.

Day of the Dead traditions

Day of the Dead Traditions 

This is a holiday that mixes a variety of unique traditions and can differ from pueblo to pueblo. For example, the traditional festivities in the town of Janitzio, located on a small island on Lake Pátzcuaro, are legendary - candlelit boats flock to the island at midnight on November 2nd, a sight that is truly awe-inspiring. Some traditions that could be considered standard are the foods associated with this day, like the sugar-sprinkled pan de muerto roll, or the calaveras, tiny skulls molded out of sugar.

ceramic skulls day of the dead decorations

Skulls are without a doubt a symbol of this holiday, represented not just through food, but in masks, face paint, and in the Catrina, a skeleton-like character often clad in a long, opulent dress and wide-brimmed hat, meant to be a parody of the 19th century upper-class Mexican women that rejected indigenous dress for European styles.

You will find an abundance of the flower commonly known in Mexico as cempasúchil, or marigold. Its brightly colored petals and strong scent are believed to aid the souls of the dead in guiding them back to the Earthly realm. And then of course, there is no Day of the Dead celebration without the elaborate altars assembled for this occasion.

Day of the Dead Flowers

Day of the Dead Altars

Altars are indeed the centerpieces of Day of the Dead festivities - many towns even host competitions to see whose altar is the most elaborate and creative. Though altars can be made for loved ones, or even for famous people who have died, most altars share some of the same elements. 

Image

    • A photograph or some visual representation of the evoked spirit is usually placed at the center of the altar.

Levels

    • The altars usually consist of varying levels, representative of Heaven and Earth and all of the steps in between.

Food & Drink

    • The evoked spirit’s favourite food and drink are set out on the altar for them to enjoy after their long journey back to the Earthly realm.

Decorations

    • There are various elements that are used to decorate the altars, such as cempasúchil, candles, ornaments, and papel picado. 

Day of the Dead Altar

Day of the Dead Party

As this is a holiday that’s quickly gained popularity outside of Mexican borders, many have decided to celebrate these traditions and festivities in their respective homes, and that’s great! Though this is a holiday that shares more than just the time around which it occurs with Halloween, with its costumes and macabre imagery, it should be noted that they are two separate and very different holidays.

Though Halloween is also rooted in a mix of Pagan and Christian traditions, over the years it’s become a holiday that has lost its true meaning. That’s not the case for Día de los Muertos. Always keep in mind when celebrating the Day of the Dead that it is a time during which people celebrate loved ones who have passed on. And yes, it is indeed a celebration! Here are some must-haves for your Day of the Dead party.

Day of the Dead Celebrations

Day of the Dead Party Decorations

  • Every party needs food and drink, and this one is no different. Try to offer foods traditionally tied to this holiday, such as pan de muerto and tamales. Of course, tequila and mezcal should be abundant, too.
  • A catrina/calavera face painting station will ensure that none of your guests are left out of the festivities. It’s a perfect time to let your guests know where the skull imagery comes from, and why it’s nothing to be afraid of.
  • Set up altars for loved ones who have passed. It doesn’t have to be personal, you could set up an altar for someone famous you admire, someone your guests might want to make an ofrenda (offering) for.
  • Don’t forget the essential decorations! Bright marigolds and an abundance of papel picado will make your party truly unforgettable.
  • A calavera (sugar skull) personalizing stations is a great activity, allowing your guests to make an ofrenda at an altar, or to take one home as a souvenir.

Day of the Dead Altar

Day of the Dead Sugar Skulls

Calaveras (sugar skulls) are an icon during the Day of the Dead. In Mexico, you can find them elaborately decorated with colourful frosting and even glitter, or you can decorate them yourself. Brightly painted and intricately decorated ceramic skulls are also widely available during this time, offering a lasting option for décor.

sugar skulls day of the dead

Day of the Dead Papel Picado

Papel picado, or chiseled paper, is widely used during most Mexican celebrations, especially during the Day of the Dead. For these festivities, these artfully crafted decorations usually depict skeletons, skulls and other imagery associated with the holiday.

Papel picado is offered in a variety of sizes, colours, and themes, used to decorate altars no matter their size, as well as rooms and spaces where celebrations are held. These days, there are more varieties to choose from than just tissue paper - metallic papel picado, for example, is water-proof.

waterproof Papel picado