What is the Day of the Dead?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a Mexican tradition that predates Christianity. It is a celebratory and not morbid or depressing memorial of family members who have died. When Mexico became largely Christian, the tradition was caught up in two Catholic holy days: All Soul’s Day occurring on the second of November, and All Saint’s Day occurring on the first of November.

Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico because of the country's Aztec connections.
Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico because of the country's Aztec connections.

The Day of the Dead moved a tradition that dates back to the Aztecs or prior, to incorporate the Catholic holy days. As well, it is actually two days and begins on the first of November.

Modern Day of the Dead festivities revolve around All Souls' Day and All Saints' Day.
Modern Day of the Dead festivities revolve around All Souls' Day and All Saints' Day.

The first of November is usually given to the remembrance of children who have died, and is often called the Day of the Little Angels. The second day is meant for the remembrance of adults who have died.

In many homes, families build an altar that has representatives of the four elements: fire, water, wind and earth. Altars are usually beautifully decorated with flowers, wreaths, and perhaps the pictures of deceased family. Food may be placed on the altars since many believe that on the day, deceased friends and relatives come to their homes. So the altars usually bear prized possessions of the dead to entice them to visit.

Feasting is an important part of both days that celebrate the Day of the Dead. In fact, good food, and beautifully cleaned homes are thought to entice the dead. As well, toy skeletons and skulls are important and welcome features. In some cases, dead bread is featured with a toy skeleton baked inside. The person who bites the skeleton is said to have good luck for the year.

On the second day, the celebration turns mainly outdoors, and families may picnic at graveyards to celebrate the life of adults that have passed. This is almost like a wake in some respects, since stories of deceased family members are told. It is again a very joyous time, and often an opportunity for family reunions.

On the Day of the Dead, graves may be decorated with beautiful floral wreaths, or with favorite food items of the deceased. It is hoped that the laughter and mention of the deceased will bring them back to earth to visit among the living family members Thus the deceased are considered to be very much present at the celebrations honoring them.

There are many celebrations among Mexican immigrants to the US. In states with a large number of Mexican families, it is not unusual to see special vigils or parties marking the Day of the Dead in most cities and even in smaller towns. In Mexico, it is celebrated throughout the country, with the largest observance being in southern Mexico.

The Day of the Dead may seem to the uninitiated an strange observance. Especially in the US, people tend to not wish to think about death or about our deceased ones since this brings us sadness. However, the Mexican tradition embraces death as a very important part of life. Death is not to be feared but is the natural consequence of living. The dead are not gone forever, and these two days of remembrance connect families to their deceased relatives, so that the ties of love for those who have died are never broken.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@medicchristy- Many people compare the Day of the Dead to Halloween. However, thinking of it that way can impose negative images of ghosts and goblins into the minds of people who just don’t know the difference. It is important for us, as Americans, to understand this cultural ritual because we have a large population of Hispanics in our country.

The history of the Day of the Dead is very interesting. It started over 500 years ago in Mexico. The Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the area now known as Mexico. Upon their arrival, they witnessed the natives doing some kind of ritual that seemed to imitate death. It has been said that this ritual had been practiced for at least 3000 years.


I would like to learn more about the Day of the Dead history and how it came to be. Can anyone go into more detail?

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