What is Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos)?

By  | 
Tony Maples Photography


Despite its proximity to Halloween, Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is not a Mexican version of Halloween. This fall holiday actually spans several days and provides families a way to honor their loved ones who’ve passed. While thinking about the dead and death may seem morbid, this Day of the Dead is a joyous celebration of life.

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead Skulls

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Day of the Dead, known in Spanish as Dia de los Muertos, is a holiday celebrated on November 1 of every year. While this holiday has many things in common with the Catholic All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2, many traditions deviate from those celebrated in the Catholic church. For three days, festivities honor the deceased. At the stroke of midnight, angelitos (little angels) return to their family. These souls of children who died can spend time with their parents and siblings for 24 hours. On November 1, the souls of older people who passed may return to their loved ones. When November 2, All Souls’ Day, arrives, the living family members visit their loved ones’ graves and create altars to their memories. Many aspects of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations by those of Mexican descent come from Aztec rituals that combined with the Catholic traditions of the Spaniard conquistadors.

Why are Skulls and Skeletons Everywhere?

Sugar Skulls Dia de los Muertos

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Skulls (calaveras) abound during Day of the Dead festivities, but they do not exist to make people sad or afraid. The sugar skulls and pan de muerto (dead bread) help people to lighten the mood around death and celebrate life while they have it. These sweet treats serve as gifts for both the dead and alive and remind the living that death is a fact of life, but it does not have to be frightening. Though Dia de los Muertos focuses on death, it truly venerates life, prompting people to enjoy it while fondly remembering those who have died.

What are the Altars?

Dia de los Muertos ofrendas at a cemetery

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Altars (ofrendas) are a staple of Dia de los Muertos on November 2. Families usually build these at the graves of their loved ones. They festoon the altars with photographs, candles, sugar skulls, and other offerings the person enjoyed in life. It’s not uncommon to see beer or desserts on these altars. It’s believed that providing offerings to their loved ones will ensure the family is protected by the spirits of the deceased throughout the year. It’s a way to honor the family members’ memories. This tradition is rapidly growing in popularity, and in many parts of the Texas Hill Country with heavy populations of Mexican descent, you’ll see many ofrendas in the local cemeteries.

Who is the Skeleton Lady?

La Calavera Catrina for Dia de los Muertos

Photo: Flickr/Randal Sheppard

During Dia de los Muertos, you often see a skeletal woman dressed in regalia. The female, La Calavera Catrina has a name that means “The Elegant Skull,” which comes from a series of satirical paintings from 1900s artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Though originally meant to mock the upper classes, the Catrina today symbolizes a means of making fun of death. Today, women frequently dress as Catrina, complete with face paint to make their faces resemble skulls.