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¡Feliz Día de Muertos! 7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Day of the Dead

Written by Javier Peinado

This blog post was updated on October 18, 2022.

Celebrated throughout the end of October until the first week of November, the Day of the Dead honors those who are not among us anymore. In addition to commemorating the departed, the occasion attempts to bring back their spirits for the day.

Día de Muertos has been observed in Mexico for many years. In fact, November 2nd is a national holiday. But now the Day of the Dead has spread throughout the world as people of all stripes have embraced the holiday, especially after the success of the Pixar movie, Coco.

For those unfamiliar with Day of the Dead — or even those who think they know all about this fascinating holiday — here are a few things you might not know about the Day of the Dead!


The Celebrations Are Positively Aztec

Most people are under the impression that Day of the Dead rituals hail from Mexico. However, what many don’t know is that these types of rituals have been around for some 3,000 years! Day of the Dead rituals began with the Aztecs as a way to honor the dead but also bring back their spirits for the day. When Spanish settlers arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, they witnessed the Aztec tradition, and the Day of the Dead soon merged with the Spanish Catholic traditions of All Souls and All Saints Day to give us the marvelous holiday that we have today.

Skulls Can Actually Be Sweet

The predominant symbols of Day of the Dead celebrations are decorative skulls used to adorn altars, and edible varieties are even given as gifts. These skulls are traditionally made of granulated sugar pressed into skull molds. They are frosted and painted to give more detail to their composition. Called calaveras de azúcar, the skulls originate from Aztec rituals used to symbolize death and rebirth. It’s believed the sweet skull tradition was the idea of Italian missionaries in Mexico in the 17th century.

It’s Not the Same as Halloween!

Fans of major Hollywood films like Hocus Pocus and Trick ‘r’ Treat know that Halloween is based on the Celtic feasts of Samhain and All Hallows’ Eve. While the Day of the Dead is celebrated at around the same time as these festivals, it’s not directly associated with them. Rather, Day of the Dead is based on Mesoamerican holidays celebrated by groups like the Aztecs, Toltecs, and Mayans.

Prior to the arrival of Columbus, these indigenous groups had been celebrating the Day of the Dead for over 3,000 years. With the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Day of the Dead festivities were adopted into the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day, which is observed on November 1, and All Souls’ Day, which is commemorated on November 2. Today, Day of the Dead is usually celebrated over the course of two days, with November 1 serving as a remembrance of children who had died and November 2 honoring adults.

It’s UNESCO Official

The UNESCO World Heritage list is often an indication of something grand and wondrous. While it features mostly physical sites across the globe, UNESCO also boasts a List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Day of the Dead ritual was placed on that list in 2003 to represent the traditions of expression transferred from generation to generation. It’s actually easy to see why the 3,000 year old Day of the Dead ritual made the cut.


Not Just Skulls, but Flowers and Butterflies, too

Traditional symbols of the Day of the Dead include skulls, flowers, and butterflies, symbols which have significant meaning for those who commemorates the day. The skull is usually placed on the graves of children as reminder of the similarities between life and death.

While skulls are the most well-known symbol of Day of the Dead, they did not become associated with the holiday until 1910, when a skull was featured in a cartoon by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. Flowers, particularly marigolds, are also well-known symbols of Day of the Dead. Celebrants believe that the marigold’s bright colors and strong scent entice the dead to return to their loved ones. Monarch butterflies also have a strong association with Day of the Dead because many people believe that they can carry the souls of the dead on their wings.

You may also like: The Best Places to Celebrate the Day of the Dead in the U.S.!

It Celebrates Life, Not Death

While Halloween is usually regarded as a tongue-in-cheek exploration of death, Day of the Dead is  a boisterous celebration of life. In fact, for those who celebrate Day of the Dead, the prospect of reuniting with a deceased loved one is not cause for dread, but for joy! Among the most important ways celebrants honor their loved ones is through special dances and parades. Mexico City, for example, hosts a massive parade each year that often spans an entire week, and that alone is reason enough to try snagging cheap vacation packages to spend your next getaway there.

This positive attitude towards death emerges from indigenous views of the afterlife. Traditionally, indigenous peoples saw death as part of a larger journey, with the final destination being Mictlán, a heavenly part of the underworld presided over by the goddess Mictecacíhuatl. Since the trip to Mictlán could take years, family members often leave objects and food at the graves of their loved ones to help them on their journey.

Ofrendas: Altars for the Dead

Lastly, personal celebrations of this Día de Muertos culminate in the building of an ofrenda (“offering”), a special altar honoring a deceased loved one. Beautifully ornate and decorated with marigolds and everything from paper crafts to religious iconography, ofrendas are topped with a picture of the deceased. While ofrendas are usually built at the homes of the departed or adjacent to their gravesite, they can be built anywhere during Day of the Dead, even a simple street corner.

Components often include examples of the four elements. Fire is symbolized through candles, while Water is exemplified through jugs of water. The element of Earth is commemorated in offerings of food and Wind is represented through paper banners known as papel picado. While used as a way to beckon the dead, ofrendas are also used to provide them with useful items for their journey through the afterlife, including pan de muerto, which translates to “bread of the dead.”

Want to be part of this celebration among the locals? Then start searching for cheap flights to Mexico City or any other destination where Day of the Dead is sure to be a major event!

Did we miss something importnt about the Day of the Dead? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author

Javier Peinado

Born in Barcelona. Raised in Madrid. New Yorker at heart. When he is not geeking out at a comic book convention or binge-watching superhero shows, this bilingual journalist loves to discover secret venues and hidden places around the world to fill his insatiable wanderlust. He also digs into ghost-busting, Bigfoot-hunting, and UFO-sighting. The truth is out there.

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