What is Day of the Dead? A Look at the History of Día de Los Muertos

Top Image:Sergio Fabila​​

Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, which is known for its unique, intimate, and playful relationship with death, is Mexico’s most iconic celebration. 

But what are the origins of this holiday? 

According to tradition, once a year, the dead return to the Earth to visit their loved ones, uniting the spiritual and physical worlds.It’s a time when Mexican families celebrate the lives of their departed loved ones with food, ceremony, and prayers. Typically celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November, Día de los Muertos can look very different depending on where you are located in Mexico. 

To understand this beautiful tradition, we must look back to pre-Hispanic times.

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Death in Pre-Hispanic Mexico

Although Day of the Dead has evolved over time due to colonization, it’s important to note that Día de los Muertos is not a Mexican version of Halloween.

In fact, Halloween originates from pagan and Christian traditions, while Day of the Dead has indigenous roots.

In the words of Chicanx scholar and art historian, Sybia Venegas, “Día de los Muertos is at its core, not a Mexican Halloween, but a sacred, communal ceremony of cultural remembrance and recognition of the lives of those who have passed on.”

The Aztecs (located in central Mexico), the Toltecs (located in modern-day Hidalgo), and the Nahua people (located in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) are all cited as having celebrated the dead over at least three thousand years ago.

Mixtec and Zapotec people in Oaxaca also have a strong tradition dating back centuries.

Mictecacihuatl the Goddess of Death

By the time the Spanish had invaded Mexico, the Aztecs had already recognized many different gods, including the revered goddess of death–––Mictecacihuatl (or Miccailhuitontli), “the Lady of the Dead and the Queen of the Underworld.”

At the time, there was a celebration in her honor that lasted the entire ninth month of the Aztec calendar. This tradition is credited as one of the origins of today’s Día de los Muertos.

Unlike modern-day celebrations, which fall at the end of October and early November, this cultural custom began in late July and ended in early August.

Unfortunately, archaeologists do not know very much about the traditions that took place during the celebrations honoring Mictecacihuatl, however, they say it most likely included customs like burning incense, singing and dancing, as well as blood sacrifice since all of these traditions were part of many Aztec rituals.

Modern Day Día de los Muertos Blending Indigenous & Catholic Traditions

Day of the Dead Altar from Oaxaca City | Photo By Arturo Canseco​​

While the celebration is rooted in indigenous tradition, Spanish conquest, of course, had a lasting impact on the way the holiday is celebrated today. 

For example, the Catholic church made sure to change the dates of Día de Muertos to align with Catholic’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day as a way to convert natives to Catholicism.

This is why, crosses, Catholic saints, prayers and other Catholic influences can be seen in present-day celebrations.

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Modern Day Día de Muertos Celebration

Pátzcuaro, Michoacán

The Purépecha people of Michoacán have a strong tradition of celebrating La Noche de Muertos (the night of the dead), as it is often referred to in Michoacán. 

The small island of Janitzio in the middle of the lake in Pátzcuaro is especially revered for Day of the Dead. 

In fact, in this part of Mexico, their approach to Day of the Dead festivities is in keeping with many of the original experiences of the celebration because it is believed to be the place where the tradition originated.

Thousands of people, locals and foreigners alike, attend this annual meeting. In 2019, the famous celebration in Pátzcuaro attracted over 200,000 visitors from Mexico and abroad.

According to ancient tradition, the first inhabitants of Michoacán believed that this beautiful lake was the door to heaven that the gods would use to come down to earth.

A mesmerizing Día de los Muertos arc from Santa María Sola de Vega, Oaxaca created by family members in honor of their grandmother. Photo By: Nashielly from @azaharesdecafe​​

Oaxaca is considered to be one of the best places to celebrate Día de Muertos.

With a rich history and strong indigenous culture that’s still alive, their celebrations are known to be especially magical and unique from other regions in Mexico.

Known for its big calendas (parades), Oaxaca has big street festivals that include music, massive puppets on stilts, dancers, and more.

Oaxaca also has regional festivals like Xandu’, known as the Zapotec celebration of the dead. This particular region has slightly different traditions, including the way they prepare the altar known as the biquie (pronounced “beqei”). The biquie style of altar focuses on using flowers and fruit to honor the dead.

Lastly, Oaxaca is known for having different styles of pan de muerto (day of the dead bread). Unlike the shell-shaped version layered with cross bones that many are familiar with, their style of pan de muerto (depending on the region in Oaxaca) includes little decorative faces, handcrafted colorful flowers made from dough, and other various designs and flavors.

Los Angeles, California

Día de los Muertos is also being celebrated more and more in the United States, since the tradition was brought over by Mexican migrants.

The celebration started growing thanks to Chicano artists in East Los Angeles in the 1970s, led by the community at Self Help Arts and Graphics.

Today, celebrating Día de los Muertos is a way for Mexican-Americans to connect with their Mexican heritage.

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery holds the largest celebrations of Día de los Muertos in the United States.

Papier-mâché skeletons decorated for Día de Muertos | Photo By: Instagram.com/@kriziamor​​
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Día de los Muertos after COVID-19

Ultimately, Día de los Muertos is a clashing and combining of cultures, and a recreation of what it means to celebrate our departed loved ones.

This year, celebrations will look a bit different given the ongoing global pandemic.

Whether through online, socially distant and/or private celebrations, we can still honor the departed through stories, altars, and more.

Día de los Muertos reminds us that the dead are still part of our community, our families, and even our homes.

UNESCO Recognizes Día de Los Muertos

Today, Día de los Muertos is a Mexican national holiday, and in 2003, UNESCO designated Día de los Muertos as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

There are a myriad of ways that death is celebrated in Mexico, and it's ultimately a cultural mashup of indigenous and Catholic traditions.

Is it Okay to Celebrate Día de Los Muertos if you are not Mexican?

At-home altar created by Ericka Sanchez | Photo By: Instagram.com/@nibblesnfeasts​​

Yes. Death does not discriminate and it affects all cultures and people.

Like José Guadalupe Posada, the creator of “La Calavera Garbancera”, said, “Death is democratic, since in the end, blonde or brown, rich or poor, all people end up being skulls.”

As long as one educates themselves on the origins and purpose of a practice and the history of the traditions, they too can honor their loved ones by creating an altar.

Luisa Navarro contributed to this report.

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About the Author

Melissa Montalvo

Freelance writer based in Guadalajara, Jalisco. By day, she works for Agave Lab, a company builder supporting Mexican startups and entrepreneurs. By night, she studies the city’s cantinas and writes about Mexican food and culture.

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