Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)


How Did Día de Los Muertos Originate?

Both the Aztecs and the Spanish in Mexico played a major role in the origination of Día de Los Muertos. The Aztecs of central Mexico, who were at the height of their empire from roughly 1300 to 1500 C.E. (Common Era), had annual “death” ceremonies to honor those that had died during the year. When the Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521, they brought with them the sword and the cross. In Catholicism, and thus throughout Spain, All Souls Day and All Saints Day are holidays that honor the faithfully departed. When the conquistadors conquered the Aztecs, the Aztec traditions of honoring the dead combined with the Spanish traditions of honoring the dead to create the holiday known today as Día de Los Muertos.


Why Celebrate Día De Los Muertos?

As you enjoy the crisp autumn air and the changing of the leaves, take a moment to ponder the seasons and the continual cycle of life. The autumn leaves can serve as a metaphor for this cycle and is the essence of what Día de Los Muertos celebrates. When autumn leaves drop to the ground, they return vital nutrients to the soil that the plants use in the spring and summer to produce the next generation of leaves and flowers. When people die, they leave behind gifts for the earth as well—the family members and friends whose lives they touched. For example, where would you be right now if your great grandma and great grandpa had not come before you? Día de Los Muertos is a time to pay respects to those that have passed away and also a time to be thankful for your own life. So in essence, to celebrate death is to celebrate life.


How Do You Celebrate Día De Los Muertos?

Día de Los Muertos is generally celebrated from October 31 to November 2. On Halloween (October 31) children go trick or treating. However, instead of saying “trick or treat,” they say “calaveras,” which means “skeletons” in Spanish. “Calaveras” is a rather new tradition for Día de Los Muertos. Older traditions include the following: on November 1, many families make special foods that they offer to their deceased friends or family members but also eat themselves. Common foods for Día De Los Muertos include pan de muerto and sugar skulls. Many people also like to decorate their houses with intricately cut paper banners, also known as papel picado. Families visit the graves of loved ones as well.

A significant tradition of Día De Los Muertos involves making an altar that the deceased friends or family members can enjoy. Altars typically have a picture of the person who died and are decorated with the things that the person liked. Many altars are also decorated with a holy cross, pan de muerto, paper skulls, papel picado, and beautiful flowers. As you can see, Día De Los Muertos is celebrated in many different ways.

Jose Posad's famous Catrina drawing

Jose Posada: Revered Mexican Artist

Respected by well-known artist Diego Rivera and writer Octavio Paz, Jose Posada was a Mexican artist whose legacy lives on as well. Posada lived from 1871 to 1913. He lived in the Mexican states of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, and Ciudad Mexico at various points in his life. Posada is best known for his calaveras (“skulls” in English) prints. Although today this artwork is regarded as generally fun and silly, when Posada was making them at the turn of the century his intention was to directly criticize the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Many of his calaveras prints portray the Mexican upper class enjoying themselves at the layperson’s expense. Posada’s most famous calavera, called “las catrinas,” (see above image) did just this. Today, Jose Posada calaveras prints are classic holiday and restaurant décor.


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