What You Didn’t Know About Dias de los Muertos

by Bri Kane


Bienvenidos amigos y espiritus
Welcome friends and ghosts

As many of you already know, Dias de los Muertos is colorful, musical, and awesome. But what many of you might not know is what the hell it’s actually about. Painted skulls, bright flowers, and altars, right? There’s actually quite a bit more involved.

First, did you know its DiaS de los Muertos, as in plural, as in more than one day? It actually falls on two days, All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) — the reason you thought it was on Halloween is because the celebrations begin at midnight on October 31st, so the two holidays overlap a bit. But the celebrations themselves are entirely different, while Halloween is about haunted houses and trick-or-treating, Dias de los Muertos is about remembering, honoring and welcoming your dead loved ones.

Dias de los Muertos originated in Mexico, but it is celebrated to some degree throughout Latin America. The traditions and celebrations vary slightly depending on geography, but they all fall in the same vein of remembering and welcoming the dead. For many, this concept of “welcoming” the dead is thoroughly confusing — when you die, you go to heaven or something and your life is over, right? For the Aztecs, the indígenas of Mexico, life is a circle and physical death is a natural part of that; which is why Dias de los Muertos is about welcoming the dead to visit the living and mourning.

Celebrating the life of the dead, and welcoming their temporary visit, involves making an altar, cleaning and decorating loved one’s graves, and las ofrendas. The Smithsonian explains that the alters are mainly a place to hold las ofrendas, which translates to offerings. These ofrendas are symbolic of the elements: candles for fire, (alcoholic) drinks for water, fluttering paper banners (papeles picados) for wind, and food for the earth. Bright orange marigolds, pictures of the dead, and personal mementos of the dead also adorn the alters. These ofrendas are to ease the dead back into the world of the living, and so they enjoy their visit! Who wouldn’t appreciate an altar with your best selfies, favorite food and drinks and pretty flowers to welcome you to a party all about how great you are/were? Depending on where you’re celebrating, people sometimes distinguish between deceased children and adults. The painted candy skulls you’re so used to seeing are for children. The Smithsonian describes them as “a whimsical reminder of the cyclicality of life” — and those who are welcoming a child bring toys.

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Given the horrendous disaster that was the 7.1 earthquake that hit Mexico earlier in fall, how are Mexicans celebrating such an important holiday this year? The LA Times reports, “many [Mexico City residents] are homeless and living in makeshift shelters on the street,” but celebrating Dias de los Muertos is an integral part of Mexican society and community — you can’t just skip doing it one year. Residents are showing their ingenuity by creating altars, cleaning cemeteries, and celebrating the best they can, while still trying to rebuild their communities. The LA Times spoke to Raul Orosio, 74, who lost his home due to the earthquake, to discuss how he plans to celebrate: “Even if we only had one glass of water and a small candle we would make an altar,” he said. The dedication to not forget the dead, but rather welcome them as a celebration of life itself, is integral to Dias de los Muertos and Mexican culture. This belief has held firm, too, through the years of turmoil Mexico has suffered: the conquistadores and the Mexican revolutions being prime examples. The Guardian articulates this history succinctly: “These upheavals made it impossible to ignore the commonplace reality of unnatural death,” which is why Dias de los Muertos is so important to those left mourning.

As Diego Rivera said in 1920, “If you look around my studio, you will see Deaths everywhere, Deaths of every size and color,” which articulates perfectly the Dias de los Muertos mindset on life and death: Death is everywhere, so don’t be scared, embrace it, paint it, love it. So, for those who celebrate, honor your deceased loved ones. And everyone, make sure to give any skull-candy-costume-wearing-loser a reality check about Dias de los Muertos and the heartfelt traditions involved. If you’re interested in learning more, try Google’s interactive tour of the  Smithsonian’s Dias de los Muertos altar, which explains the traditions, ofrendas, and history involved. 

Header photo via Flickr/PunkToad

Second photo via Flickr/Ron Frazier 

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