Your Guide to the Day of the DeadNovember 1, 2019
What better time to celebrate the joys of life than while honoring the dead? For millions of people, Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a time to reflect on the realm of the living while demonstrating love and respect to loved ones that have passed on. Even the heavy tone of death can’t stomp out the vibrant and colorful traditions that include face painting, costumes, dancing, and other symbolic rituals. Here is your guide to understanding the holiday that is Mexico’s most colorful and lively event of the year!
Origins of the Day of the Dead
The beginnings of the holiday span back 3,000 years and connect to the Aztecs and other Nahua peoples' belief that life was cyclical and death was just an important part of the journey. Death was seen as being just as important as life and required the work of surviving loved ones to aid the dead to their final resting place. Due to this, family members place food, water, and other tools on their lost loved one’s grave or on handmade altars in their homes to help the dead in their quest for eternal life.
Day of the Dead Customs
Family members also offer handmade sugar skulls with the deceased one’s name inscribed on the top, a special bread called pan de Muertos, and marigolds that bloom in late fall to their personalized altars. These offerings provide strength and guidance to their loved ones as they navigate the afterlife. It is their task to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead, to finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place—a journey that takes several years!
The celebrations don’t only revolve around altars in homes, however, and continue to the streets for vibrant parades and in local cemeteries. Since many are not buried around family houses and instead in cemeteries, many families will extend their celebrations to public graves with picnics, music, and drinking that lasts through the night!
The Day of the Dead Vs. Halloween
Many regard the Day of the Dead as the equivalent of Halloween, seeing both holidays hold several customs and beliefs in common. Celebrated between October 31st-November 2nd, the Day of the Dead falls on and lasts through Halloween. Both share the view that on this particular day of the year, the veil between the living and the dead dissolves—it is a day for the dead to linger in the realm of the living. Costumes and parades are also typical among the two holidays and those celebrating the Day of the Dead commonly paint their faces to resemble skeletons and wear elaborate dress.
Over time, the customs of the Day of the Dead continue to evolve with younger generations. However, the heart of the holiday remains the same—to celebrate the lives of those who’ve departed and to portray death as an essential phase of life.