Celebration of the dead: 7 things to know about Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos is about celebration and not sadness

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead is celebrated on Nov. 1. A KSAT crew recently traveled to Mexico City to learn more about the history and origins of the holiday. Here are seven things to know about the celebration.

1. Dia de los Muertos is not Halloween

This is a common misconception, but Dia de los Muertos is not a Mexican version of Halloween. 

Despite being held around the same date, Dia de los Muertos is a combination of two traditions. 

The native people of Mesoamerica held rituals to honor the dead dating back 2,500 to 3,000 years.  

When the Spanish arrived in central Mexico, they brought the Catholic faith to the Americas and two customs were combined.

The holiday gradually moved to a three-day period from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 to coincide with All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. 

Special Section: Day of the Dead

2. Where did the holiday originate in central Mexico?

The indigenous people of Mexico, which included the Aztecs and Nahua, believed that the universe was cyclical and death was a continuum of birth, adulthood and older age.  

They viewed death as an integral part of life and felt it was disrespectful to mourn. 

When someone died, their soul would travel to the land of the dead. 

It would then have to make it through nine levels before it landed in its final resting place, called Mictlan. 

Festivals that would develop into the modern Day of the Dead took place in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which was around the beginning of August. 

These festivals were dedicated to a goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead.”

Today, Dia de los Muertos continues to honor the dead with festivals and lively celebrations. 

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3. Where did the tradition of altars and marigolds begin?

Altars or ofrendas have become a staple of Dia de los Muertos and have deep roots and meaning for the holiday.

As previously mentioned, the indigenous people of central Mexico believed a person’s soul would travel through the land of the dead.

This was considered to be a difficult journey so family members provided food, water and tools to helped their loved ones.

This inspired the current-day ofrendas. These ofrendas are not used to worship, but instead welcome spirits back to the realm of the living.

They include the departed’s favorite food or drinks. They also have a person’s photo or cherished items, possibly a toy for a child.

Relatives can also visit gravesites and decorate headstones. Many ofredas are decorated with the Mexican cempasuchil or marigold. The marigold is the traditional flower used to the honor the dead. 

The smell of these flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to their offerings and to their family homes. 

4. Where did the Calavera Catrina originate?

One of the first iterations of La Calavera Catrina can be traced to the Aztec death-goddess named Mictecacihuatl.

Mictecacihuatl was the keeper of bones in the underworld and presided over festivals honoring the dead. 

This was put into a visual form in the early 1910s when Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada created an etching to accompany the Catrina’s story form. 

Posada dressed the Calavera in a French dress and used it as a social commentary on Mexico attempting to imitate European styles.

The Calavera Catrina is now one of the most-widely used symbols for Day of the Dead celebrations. 

5. What about the use of skulls?

Before etching the Calavera Catrina, Posada etched skulls or calaveras that were used in literary works to make fun of the living.

The idea behind the skeletons and skulls we see today was that underneath all of our clothes and belongings, we are all ultimately just bones. 

6. What are some traditional foods and drinks to celebrate the holiday?

There are several foods that honor the departed during Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The foods are used to help nourish souls as they reach their destination.

Sugar or chocolate skulls are the most popular. They can be decorated in several ways and made in various sizes.

Pan de muerto is sweet egg bread baked in a circle to represent the circle of life. The bread can also be decorated with bones.

A popular drink is Pulque, which is an alcoholic, fermented sweet beverage made from the sap of agave. It has been produced in Mexico for centuries.

Living relatives often have these items to celebrate and tell stories of their loved ones. 

7. The overall tone of Dia de los Muertos

The most important factor of Dia de los Muertos is that it is a day of celebration and not sadness.

The day is an opportunity to awake loved ones and a moment where the barrier between life and death has been removed.

The Mexican government made Dia de los Muertos became a national holiday in the 1960s.

It is now a tradition that unifies the country, Latin America and other parts of the world including the United States based on the pre-Hispanic Mexican traditions.

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About the Authors:

RJ Marquez is co-host of KSAT News Now and reports for Good Morning San Antonio. He's been at KSAT since 2010 and covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms, including his Spurs newsletter. RJ has reported stories for KSAT Explains.

Misael started at KSAT-TV as a photojournalist in 1987.