Dia de los Muerto (Day of the Dead): A History

Dia de los Muerto celebration in Mexico
Dia de los Muerto celebration in Mexico

In the last few years, the US, particularly Texas and California, have taken notice of the Mexican celebration known as Dia de los Muerto, or the Day of the Dead. Cavaleras (or skulls) that are brightly decorated, or skeletons wearing clothing and engaging in activities- playing music, getting married, etc., have become popular imagery for clothing and accessories. Sure, you recognize the fashion trend, but do you understand the origins? Our resident tri-lingual librarian, Hella Goode, enlightens us.

The origins of this awe-inspiring holiday can be traced back a few thousand years or more to the heyday of the Aztec Empire in Central and Southern Mexico. The Aztec religion and gods viewed death as part of the circle of life, and were positive that it was just a step from rebirth. Death was nothing to fear, but to celebrate as a rite of passage. They worshiped the Lady of Death, a goddess called Mictecacihuatl throughout their month-long celebration. They gathered marigolds, as the sweet smell they believed would guide the dead back home, making marigolds the official flower of the celebration.

Of course, when the Spanish arrived, just as they were with most of the indigenous activities, they refused to value this celebration. They were horrified to see death glorified instead of mourned and dedicated themselves to spreading Catholicism throughout the land. The Day of the Dead traditions were so deeply rooted in the Aztec culture, however, that the Spanish found it impossible to get rid of altogether. Instead, they blended their Christian beliefs with the Aztec beliefs. The month-long event became the new three-day celebration that still exists in Mexico and Latin America.

Around this time of year, markets are flooded with Day of the Dead supplies, including popular artist renderings of the Day of the Dead, paper mache or wooden carved figurines of skeletons or “calacas” doing everything from getting married to playing guitar to eating dinner. They are not sad or scary but happy, celebrating their rebirth. They make people laugh. One of the most popular images from this celebration is that of the “Catrina” or the sophisticated lady calaca. She usually wears the fanciest of dresses, a hat, and is often depicted smoking. She was first made by an artist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada, born in 1852 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. He was originally an illustrator, but enjoyed crafting as well. His image of the sophisticated lady, Catrina, is the first that inspired many today.

Day of the Dead begins on October 31st, what we recognize as Halloween. This is the day that preparations are made for family altars for the dead which are kept in the home. They usually feature a photo of the deceased, marigolds, the deceased’s favorite foods, and typical Day of the Dead adornments such as candy skulls, tamales, or a piece of “pan de los muertos” or “bread of the dead.” Sometimes families also use “papel picado” or tissue paper cut into intricate designs and burn incense.

November first is called “All Saints Day” in honor of children who have passed away. It is said that on this day the spirits of the children, “angelitos” or little angels, return to their families. Then, on November second, the official Day of the Dead is celebrated. It is also known as “All Souls Day.” On this day, families will visit the cemetery of their family members who have passed, and picnic at their grave which has been decorated with candles, marigolds, a photo, and favorite toys or foods. They sing and carry on, feeling the soul of their loved one beside them. They celebrate way into the night and sometimes until the next morning.

Meanwhile, here in the US, kids are still recovering from their sugar hangovers, and haven’t really reflected on anything more deep than the extent their finger will go into a marshmallow or why Ms. King wasn’t afraid of their Friday the 13th mask. Others will appreciate it artistically, using its colorful displays in their own arts and crafts, and begin to reflect on their own life and rebirth. Like it says in the Lion King, “we are all part of the circle of life.”


Cano, Theresa. Day of the Dead art. http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/articles/dead-history3.html

Heinrichs, Ann. Day of the Dead. The Child’s World, 2006.

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