What is the Day of the Dead? | History Hit

What is the Day of the Dead?

Harry Sherrin

01 Nov 2021
Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, 2016.
Image Credit: Diego Grandi / Shutterstock.com

The Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a celebration held annually on 2 November, primarily in Mexico and Latin America, in which the dead are honoured and revered.

Parties and parades are held. Altars and gravestones are often adorned with offerings to aid the dead on their journeys through the afterlife. Sugar skulls are eaten and the symbolism of skeletons is rife.

Ultimately, the holiday attempts to make light of death, to approach it with openness and lightheartedness rather than fear, to see death as an inevitable part of the human experience.

It dates back to the indigenous peoples of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, who believed that the souls of the dead annually returned to Earth to visit their loved ones. And the festival took on a distinctly Roman Catholic influence after the Spanish invasion of what is now Mexico.

Here’s the history of the Day of the Dead, from its ancient Mesoamerican origins to its modern incarnation.

Pre-Columbian origins

The Day of the Dead dates back to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, when indigenous Nahua peoples, such as the Aztecs or Mexica people, celebrated and honoured those who had died.

According to Aztec tradition, people traveled after death to the Land of the Dead, Chicunamictlán. From there, they would face a challenging four-year journey into Mictlán, the resting place of the dead.

Once a year, some believed, the spirits of the dead would return from Mictlán to visit their loved ones. The living celebrated by the return of their loved ones, and gifts might be given to the dead to aid them on their journeys to Mictlán.

Celebrations were often associated with Mictecacihuatl, or the Lady of the Dead, an Aztec goddess who presided over the underworld and was associated with death.

It’s thought that when Spanish conquistadores arrived in the Americas, celebrations of the Lady of the Dead were held not in November, but in July and August.

November 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the meeting of Hernan Cortes and Aztec ruler Montezuma at the gates of the magnificent Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. Caroline Dodds Pennock is a specialist in the Aztecs. She takes Dan on a whirlwind tour through the events of that extraordinary year and the gigantic impact of the Spanish conquest that followed.
Listen Now

Spanish Influence

The Spanish arrived in what is now known as Mexico in the 16th century and set about enforcing Roman Catholicism upon the region.

Eventually, indigenous traditions that honoured the dead were unofficially adopted into the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on 1 and 2 November, respectively. The Day of the Dead was thereafter held annually on 2 November.

Christian traditions and notions of the afterlife then crept into the Day of the Dead, fusing with the region’s pre-Columbian celebrations. Delivering flowers, candles, bread and wine to the graves of dead loved ones, for example, was a medieval European practice that the Spanish brought to early modern Mexico.

Today, Catholic symbols such as crucifixes and the Virgin Mary might be placed on homemade altars during the Day of the Dead. It is not officially a Christian celebration, though, striking a more joyous and less sombre tone than its Christian counterpart of All Souls’ Day.

Some aspects of the Day of the Dead, such as the calling of spirits home and the tale of Mictecacihuatl, are at odds with traditional Catholic teachings. But the Day of the Dead is nonetheless intimately entwined with Catholic history and influence.

The emergence of La Catrina

The early 20th century saw the emergence of La Catrina in Day of the Dead symbolism. The political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada created an etching of a female skeleton, seemingly of indigenous descent, donning a French dress and white make-up to hide her heritage.

‘Calavera de la Catrina’ by José Guadalupe Posada. Zine etching, Mexico City, c. 1910.

Image Credit: ArtDaily.org / Public Domain

Posada titled his piece La Calavera Catrina, or ‘The Elegant Skull’. Depictions of La Catrina – a female skull in elegant clothes and flowery hat – have since become a key part of annual Day of the Dead celebrations.

La Catrina informs countless costumes and artworks associated with the Day of the Dead. Figurines of La Catrina are paraded through the streets or displayed in homes, often as a reminder for people to celebrate the dead in a lighthearted manner.

A modern celebration

Today, the Day of the Dead is celebrated in a number of ways. Public ceremonies, such as parades, are held where dancing and festivities aim to please the visiting spirits of the dead.

People deliver offerings – of food, tequila and gifts – to altars and graves for the deceased. Marigolds and other flowers are arranged, or incense is lit, in the hopes that the scents will lead the spirits of the dead back home.

Sometimes, masks of skulls are worn or edible skulls, often made of sugar or chocolate, are eaten.

Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, Mexico, 2019.

Image Credit: Eve Orea / Shutterstock.com

While the Day of the Dead is often recognised as a Mexican tradition, it is also celebrated in other parts of Latin America. With the Mexican diaspora, the tradition spread into the United States and further across the globe.

Wherever they are held, Day of the Dead celebrations typically all have one thing in common: death is not feared nor hidden from. On the Day of the Dead, death is celebrated as an inevitable part of life.

Harry Sherrin