If you said “Halloween," you would be…wrong! OK, so we fooled you with that introduction, but the holiday we're talking about definitely brings Halloween to mind. What are we talking about? It's a Mexican holiday known as El Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead!
Halloween incorporates skulls and skeletons in a way that plays on the fears we often associate with death. The Day of the Dead, on the other hand, celebrates death by focusing on good memories of loved ones who have died.
The Day of the Dead traditionally begins at midnight on October 31 and continues until November 2. It's a popular national holiday in Mexico. It's also celebrated in other areas around the world with significant Hispanic populations. For example, you'll find Day of the Dead celebrations in many places in the United States, including southwestern states, such as Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The origins of the Day of the Dead can be traced back 2,500-3,000 years to the ancient Aztecs. The Aztecs celebrated for an entire month during the summer, guided by their goddess Mictecacihuatl, who was known as the Lady of the Dead.
The Aztecs were eventually conquered by the Spanish, who brought Catholicism as a new religion. The Christian celebrations of All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2) became intertwined with the ancient Aztec celebration to become the holiday we now call the Day of the Dead.
Day of the Dead celebrations often vary from region to region, but there are several common customs shared by all. These might include building altars dedicated to loved ones who have passed away. There are also traditional dances performed in honor of the deceased. Dancers often wear homemade skull masks known as calacas.
A Day of the Dead celebration wouldn't be complete without food, of course. Traditional foods used in celebrations might include pan de muerto (bread of the dead), which can contain miniature skeletons. Skulls made of sugar are also made with the names of deceased relatives written on the forehead.
Families also often visit cemeteries where loved ones are buried. They may have picnics featuring the favorite foods of loved ones who have passed away. Graves are often decorated with flowers (especially marigolds) and candles.
Skulls play a major role in the symbolism of the Day of the Dead. They represent both death and rebirth. More than anything, they are used to honor the dead, who many believe come back to visit with the living during Day of the Dead celebrations.