Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico, where it attains the quality of a National Holiday. The celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Traditions connected with the holiday 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 Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl. In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.
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 2,500–3,000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
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 god 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 be 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 three-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 orange mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) called cempasúchitl (originally named cempoalxochitl, Nahuatl for “twenty 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 offerings.
Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or “the little angels”), and bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”), and sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas 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. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places, people have picnics at the grave site as well.
Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes; these usually have the Christian cross, 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 or 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 dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla (1817–1893) are also traditional on this day.
A common symbol of the holiday is the skull (colloquially called calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (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 egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, 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 Catrina (“calavera 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 figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances.
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. For 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 set a table in the parents’ home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, 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 mariposas (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.
In 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 deceased. 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 Mictlán.
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 calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. This custom is similar to that of Halloween’s trick-or-treating and is relatively recent.
Some people believe that possessing Day of the Dead 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
In many American communities with Mexican residents, Day of the Dead celebrations are held that are 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 1990. The event combines elements of traditional Day of the Dead celebrations with those of pagan harvest festivals. People wearing masks carry signs honoring the dead and an urn in which people can place slips of paper with prayers on them to be burned.
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 Hollywood Forever Cemetery. There, in a mixture of Mexican traditions and Hollywood hip, conventional altars are set up side-by-side with altars to Jayne Mansfield and Johnny Ramone. Colorful native dancers and music intermix with performance artists, while sly pranksters play on traditional themes.
Similar 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 altars at Garfield Square by the Marigold Project. Oakland is home to Corazon Del Pueblo in the Fruitvale district. Corazon Del Pueblo has a shop offering handcrafted Mexican gifts and a museum devoted to Day of the Dead artifacts. In Missoula, Montana, 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, 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.
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 grave sites of ancestors. A big event also is the consumption of fiambre, which is made only for this day during the year.
In 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, a spiced fruit porridge that derives its deep purple color from the Andean blackberry and purple maize. This is typically consumed with guagua de pan, a bread shaped like a swaddled infant, though variations include many 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.
The 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.
In Haiti, voodoo traditions mix with Roman Catholic 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.
Dia de los ñatitas (“Day of the Skulls”) is a festival celebrated in La Paz, Bolivia, on November 9. In pre-Columbian 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.
In many countries with a Roman Catholic heritage, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have long been holidays in which people take the day off work, go to cemeteries with candles and flowers, and give presents to children, usually sweets and toys. In Portugal and Spain, ofrendas (“offerings”) are made on this day. In Spain, the play Don Juan Tenorio is 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, Estonia 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. In Brittany, 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 milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls.
A Mexican-style Day of the Dead has been celebrated in Prague, Czech Republic, as part of a promotion by the Mexican embassy. Local citizens join in a celebration of the Day of the Dead put on by a theatre group with masks, candles, and sugar skulls.
The Philippines and Oceania
In the Philippines, the holiday is called Todos Los Santos (All Saints Day), Undas (from Spanish andas, or possibly honra), or Araw ng mga Patay (“Day of the Dead”), and has more of a family reunion atmosphere. The traditions were imported during the Philippines’ Spanish colonial era. 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 holiday).
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.
Asia: Other similar 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.
The Bon Festival (O-bon) or only Bon is a Japanese Buddhist holiday to honor the departed spirits of one’s ancestors. (August)
In Korea, Chuseok is a major traditional holiday, also called Hangawi. People go where the spirits of one’s ancestors are enshrined and perform ancestral worship rituals early in the morning; they visit the tombs of immediate ancestors to trim plants, clean the area around the tomb, and offer food, drink, and crops to their ancestors.
The Ching Ming Festival (simplified Chinese; traditional Chinese; pinyin: qīng míng jié) is a traditional Chinese festival usually occurring around April 5th of the Gregorian calendar. Along with Double Ninth Festival on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese calendar, 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 Month, in which ghosts and spirits come out from the underworld to visit earth.
During 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.