Observed annually from October 31 to November 2, the Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) is one of Mexico’s oldest and most iconic national holidays. People come together to pray for and remember those who have died, supporting the dearly departed through private altars called ofrendas and offerings of calaveras (a.k.a. sugar skulls), marigolds (known as the flower of the dead for its use in traditional funerary ceremonies), candles, incense, favorite foods and beverages, and other gifts. Visitors will often congregate around the graves of loved ones, depositing these items and even celebrating in their company.
The Day of the Dead is reflective of Mexico’s unique fusion of European and Indigenous culture, particularly the Aztec and Catholic faiths. Like most societies around the world, Mesoamericans had been honoring their deceased ancestors for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century; however, the modern holiday is traced back to the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the underworld. The Aztecs were fascinated with death and the transition between the physical and spiritual worlds, and this endured long after the Spanish conquered the region and introduced Christianity.
Originally celebrated in the summer, the holiday — like so many other pre-Christian observances — was syncretized to fall on All Saints’ Day, which commemorates deceased Catholic saints (and itself coincides with a Celtic holiday about the dead called Samhain). Many Mexicans, knowingly or not, continue to combine the symbols and rituals of both cultures in their Day of the Dead celebrations. The holiday was previously only celebrated in the south, where most indigenous and mestizo people live; it only became a truly national holiday in the 1960s, when the Mexican government officially promoted it as a unifying cultural tradition. The holiday is even promoted in schools, making it a firm part of Mexican identity both domestically and abroad (where it is now increasingly celebrated). The U.N. classifies it as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity“.
If anyone is wondering why the Day of the Dead actually spans three days: October 31 is when children make an altar to invite the angelitos — spirits of dead children — to come back for a visit (it is thus sometimes called the “Day of the Innocents” or “Day of the Little Angels”); November 1 honors the adult spirits, while November 2 is when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives.
To see photos of celebrations around the world, click here.