The Day of the Dead — or El Día de los Muertos in Spanish — is about as Mexican as it gets, but this unique holiday has been gaining popularity outside of its native country for a while now thanks to its macabre humor and distinctive art. Anyone shopping for Halloween decorations has probably seen at least a few examples of it: colorfully painted skulls, images of festive skeletons dancing and decked out in garish hats, etc.
But the Day of the Dead isn’t just Mexico’s version of Halloween. There’s a lot more to it than that. Here are some facts you might not have known about this unique holiday but probably should:
1. It’s not celebrated on the same day as Halloween
Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, El Día de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated on Nov. 2. However, it is part of a multi-day sequence of festivities that usually begins on the evening of Oct. 31. Collectively, the entire celebration is sometimes referred to as the Days of the Dead.
2. The day before is dedicated to remembering dead children
El Día de los Muertos is meant to honor the spirits of deceased adults_._ On Nov. 1, however, families gather to remember the spirits of children who passed away prematurely. This is called either El Día de los Inocentes (the Day of the Innocents) or El Día de los Angelitos (the Day of the Little Angels).
3. It’s really, really old
The Day of the Dead isn’t just different from Halloween, it’s also potentially much, much older, too. Historians trace its origins back as far as 3,000 years to ancient Mesoamerican festivals dedicated to the goddess of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl. These festivals were traditionally held in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which roughly corresponds to August. However, in an attempt by Spanish conquistadors to make it a Christian holiday, it was moved to the end of October and beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic Allhallowtide triduum (basically, a fancy word for a three-day holiday): All Saints’ Eve on Oct. 31, All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2.
4. It’s bigger than Christmas
The Day of the Dead is Mexico’s biggest religious holiday, with big public events like parades and gatherings at cemeteries (complete with mariachi bands) as well as more intimate celebrations that take place inside individual homes. Because of that, it can get expensive. Some families in rural parts of Mexico spend as much as two months’ income on lavish decorations and food specific to the holiday.
5. It’s a day to celebrate, not a day to mourn
Ever notice how even the skeletons look like they’re having a party in Day of the Dead art? It’s a far cry from how many Western cultures view death, but Mexicans take this lightness very seriously due to the belief that spirits who come to visit would be insulted if they found everyone in mourning. So instead, Day of the Dead is meant as a celebration of life. Family members get together to tell funny stories about deceased relatives and remember how they lived, not feel sorry for them.
6. Cleaning is a crucial part of the holiday
One of the main functions of the Day of the Dead is the cleaning of the graves. This is done both as part of the ritual to prepare for the very important visitors that will be coming (i.e. the spirits of the dead) as well as for pragmatic reasons — unlike in the United States, in Mexico, the majority of cemeteries are not privately owned and therefore have to be maintained by members of the community.
7. Altars to the dead show they haven’t been forgotten
Probably the main component of the Day of the Dead decorations is the altars, or more accurately, “offerings” (ofrendas in Spanish). Contrary to what the term “altar” implies, these are not for worship. Instead, each family assembles one as a way of paying tribute to the dead, with every part of the altar symbolizing something related to either the holiday or the dead ancestor/family member it’s dedicated to. This includes orange and yellow marigolds (cempazuchitl), copal incense, candles, pictures of the deceased, salt and water, traditional Day of the Dead foods and other things that might be specific to the individual person (favorite treats, toys for children, fashion magazines, etc.).
8. The flowers attract ghosts
Cempazuchitl, the official flowers of the Day of the Dead, are used in massive quantities to decorate the graves and altars — a practice that has its roots in pre-Columbian traditions. These flowers (nicknamed el flor del muerto – “the flower of the dead”), sometimes said to represent the sun and rebirth, are also believed to help guide the spirits back home. In English, they are known as Mexican Merigolds.
9. Monarch butterflies are returning ancestors
Every year during the week of Nov. 2, parts of Mexico are swarmed with monarch butterflies that travel a staggering 3,000 miles all the way from Canada. The belief that the spirits of the dead could return in the form of hummingbirds or butterflies goes back all the way to the Aztecs, so it’s not hard to see why the monarch would become a key decorative motif.
10. Skulls and skeletons are everywhere (and a lot of them are edible)
From masks and costumes to face paint to ornately decorated candies piled on top of the altars as offerings to the dead, skulls (calaveras) and skeletons (calacas) are inescapable during the Day of the Dead festivities. (Bad news for anyone who suffers from skelephobia.) In particular, handmade sugar skulls (calaveras de Alfeñique) are an iconic part of the holiday. But hey, at least they aren't real … anymore.
11. The most famous skeleton of them all is named La Catrina
Originally drawn as a political statement satirizing Mexicans who tried to adopt European cultural customs in place of their own, "La Calavera Catrina" (or "La Calavera Garbancera," as she was first called) was the creation of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada circa 1910. Since then, she has become one of the most recognizable images found in Day of the Dead artwork. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera even featured her prominently in one of his most famous pieces, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon."
12. The dead get their own bread
Pan de muerto, which translates as “bread of the dead,” is another holiday treat. A sweet egg bread, it includes ingredients like anise and orange peel. Usually, pan de muerto is decorated with strips of dough arranged on top to look like crossed bones.
13. Spending a night in the cemetery is commonplace
To Americans, it might sound like a predictable setup to a horror movie, but in some parts of Mexico, spending a night inside a graveyard, picnicking next to a dead family member’s grave, telling stories, listening to music and just generally making merry is all part of the celebration.
14. Practices vary from region to region
Not every place celebrates the Day of the Dead in the same way. Different parts of Mexico (as well as Latin America) have different local traditions. In a town called Pomuch in the Yúcatan Peninsula, for example, part of the annual celebration includes removing the bones of one’s ancestors from the tombs and “washing” or dusting them by hand.
15. Failing to celebrate can be dangerous
If this all sounds like a lot of time and energy and money, well, just remember, not celebrating could be even more costly. According to tradition, if the dead return home and find that their family has failed to build them a suitable altar, they sometimes get revenge. That can manifest in a variety of ways, including sickness and even death.
16. Day of the Dead isn’t a one-time deal
Unlike Halloween, which was thought to be a special time of year — the one night when the dead were allowed to return to the world of the living — the Day of the Dead isn’t a special, once-a-year event for spirits. According to traditional beliefs, the dead come and go all the time, stopping in to visit living family members on a frequent basis. Instead, the Day of the Dead is more like Christmas: It’s meant to remind the living of things they should be trying to remember all year round.
17. It’s officially a big deal, and not just for Mexicans
18. It’s made it to Hollywood
The unique folk art associated with the Day of the Dead was a key influence on both Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” as well as “Corpse Bride,” and the Day of the Dead has featured prominently in movies like “The Book of Life” and Daniel Craig’s 2015 James Bond movie, “Spectre.” But that’s not all, it’s also made its way into video games like “Grim Fandango” and “Guacamelee!” Not bad for a 3,000-year-old holiday.
Check out local Day of the Dead celebrations:
Dia de los Muertos Storytime, Nov. 1, 5 p.m., The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, (801-484-9100 or kingsenglish.com)
Day of the Dead Celebration, Nov. 2, 5:30-8:30 p.m., Southern Utah Museum of Art, 13 S. 300 West, Cedar City, free (435-586-7700 or suu.edu/events)
“Day of the Dead” art by SUU students, through Nov. 10, times vary, Southern Utah Museum of Art, Sorenson Center for the Arts, SUU, Cedar City, free (435-586-5432 or suu.edu)
Libraries:10 comments on this story
Taylorsville Library, 4870 S. 2700 West, Taylorsville, a free screening of “Coco,” Nov. 1, 10:30 a.m. (801-943-4636)
Corinne and Jack Sweet Library, 455 E. F St., a free screening of “Coco,” Nov. 1, 5 p.m. (801-594-8651)
Kearns Library, 5350 S. 4220 West, Kearns, Dia de los Muertos Aztec dance, Nov. 1, 7 p.m.; and Dia de los Muertos celebration, Nov. 2, 5 p.m. (801-943-4636)
Dia de los Muertos festival, Nov. 2, 4 p.m. (801-594-8632)
Tyler Library, 8041 S. Wood St., Midvale, a free screening of “Coco,” Nov. 2, 3:30 p.m.; and Dia de los Muertos celebration, Nov. 2, 5 p.m. (801-943-4636)