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Decorated Day of the Dead skulls

Día de Muertos: The history of Day of the Dead


Better known as Día de Muertos (or Día de los Muertos) in its native tongue, the Day of the Dead is celebrated at the very end of October, or the beginning of November. These days it’s predominantly a Christian occasion, but the joyous and colourful event is a far cry from the sombre Sunday ceremonies that are commonly associated with traditional church services.

When is the Day of the Dead this year?

Day of the Dead 2022 will be celebrated on Wednesday, 2nd November.

Where did Day of the Dead originate?

This question is easier to ask than it is to answer because it’s either a clash of two separate events that evolved into one or, quite simply, nationalist propaganda. In the case of the former, it begins with the ancient Aztec custom of celebrating the dead. For clarity, the Aztecs were a Mesoamerican (a region that covers central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica) culture from 1300 AD that lasted until 1521 AD. Some historians argue that the roots of Day of the Dead stem from celebrating fearsome underworld gods, in particular the goddess Mictecacihuatl.

Who was Mictecacihuatl?

According to Aztec mythology, Mictecacihuatl was just a baby when she was sacrificed to the gods, but she grew to adulthood in the land of Mictlan, the lowest part of the underworld. Here, she married Miclantecuhtl where the pair ruled, but it was Mictecacihuatl who was tasked with guarding the bones of the deceased.

She is sometimes depicted wearing a skirt made of snakes or from flayed skin, her head with the face of a skull. She was celebrated, or rather appeased (the dead were buried with food/precious objects as gifts) over the twenty days in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, around July and August. The festival itself involved singing and dancing, the odd blood sacrifice. However, the Spanish arrived in 1519 and destroyed the Aztec civilisation and culture.

How did the Spanish help create Day of the Dead?

The Catholic invaders did their utmost to stop what they perceived as the worship of false idols, but in some areas of Mexico, instead of stamping out archaic beliefs, they were absorbed into Roman Catholicism.

An excellent example of this is La Virgen De Guadalupe, a sort-of South American Virgin Mary who appeared in a vision to Juan Diego, a native Mexican in 1531. La Virgen de Guadalupe became a national holiday in Mexico in 1859 and is celebrated annually on 12th December at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Similarly, the Mictecacihuatl Festival was shifted to correspond with Halloween and this incarnation of Day of the Dead was born.

What has Day of the Dead got to do with Nationalist Propaganda?

Other historians argue that Day of the Dead is revivalist, in so far as it’s based on an Aztec belief system, created by President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (1895 to 1970) to promote Mexican Nationalism in the 20th Century. If that’s the case, it worked a treat. Day of the Dead is even recognised by UNESCO in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Where is Day of the Dead Celebrated?

In Mexico and those parts of the USA with large Mexican communities, but it’s spread to other parts of the US as well. But even the most established events are barely 30 years old and, outside of Mexican communities, have already been watered down by external concerns, such as politics.

However, in places like the Philippines, the event is celebrated with more authenticity. Other countries that celebrate Day of the Dead are Australia, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Fiji.

How is Day of the Dead celebrated?

Human sacrifice is no longer tolerated (thankfully), however, the ofrenda - offerings placed in a home alter - is arguably a throwback to those grim occasions when Mictecacihuatl was worshipped with a ritualistic killing. The Ofrenda usually incorporates Mexican Marigolds (cempasúchil) pictures of loved ones, colourfully painted skulls (calaveras), food (especially a bread called pan de muerto), salt, candles and, in general, items connected to the people being remembered. Then everyone marches to the graveyard to give it a quick tidy up and continue the celebrations with the deceased at the forefront of proceedings, with more food, drink and all the ingredients of a great party!

Five dead interesting Day of the Dead Facts

  • The Day of the Dead Parade (aka Desfile de Día de Muertos) is relatively new

Traditional Day of the Dead celebrations were family gatherings, but this has become more of a food and drink saturated community event, celebrated by anyone who fancies dressing up, or watching people dressed in a skeleton-based costume, and getting stuck into the spirit (literally) of the occasion.

  • The Mexico City parade is the largest in the world

Huge alters, massive floats, everyone dressed up (even the kids) and enjoying the last word in street parties. The highlight is the Desfile de Día de Muertos at the Paseo de la Reforma, but the parties go on across the city for days.

  • Offerings to the dead are inspired by the four elements

And all to be placed on, or close, to the alter. Fire in the form of candles; water filled in pitches; earth represented by food; wind signified by delicate paper banners called papel picado, decorated with cut-out patterns to allow the souls of the dead to pass.

  • The archetypical Day the Dead skull was invented in 1910, but not for Day of the Dead

Mexican illustrator/satirist Jose Guadalupe Posada created La Catrina, a slang word for the rich, to criticise the elite for dumbing down Mexican culture by appropriating European customs. The skull represents none other than Mictecacihuatl but, in the original illustration, she’s wearing European-style headgear.

  • Sugar Skulls (calaveras de azúcar) are made from sugar

Okay, that fact is hardly going to set the world on fire, but there is more to them than just tooth decay. They represent death but act as a reminder that death needn’t be bitter. Also, they are Spanish in origin, designed to replace actual skulls used by indigenous Mexicans back in the day.

For more articles about the history and traditions of Halloween, check our dedicated Halloween hub.