Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, began as the Halloween pumpkins went dark on Oct. 31. Not to be confused with the celebration of costumed revelers, tricks, and too many treats, many English-speaking people remain unsure what exactly Dia de los Muertos entails.

Largely celebrated in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is also a popular holiday in Guatemala, Brazil, Spain, in large Mexican-American communities in the United States, and in High School Spanish classrooms across the globe.

People dressed as skeletons listen to music during festivities for Dia De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson


Day of the Dead is a time for friends and family to come together to honor those who have passed away. The holiday dates back to the time of the Aztecs who celebrated a festival dedicated to the Lady of the Dead. Rituals of celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations for at least 3,000 years.

The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. In modern times, the celebration occurs on Nov. 1 and 2 in connection with the Catholic holidays All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls' Day (Nov. 2).

A parishioner lights a candle near three skulls placed in a church in San Jose Peten. REUTERS/Carlos Duarte

The Traditions

Traditionally, families will build private altars to honor the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Families visit the graves to deliver the gifts and hold vigil with candles, photos, and offerings.

Celebrators will often bring toys for deceased children, bottles of tequila for deceased adults, and sometimes leave pillows and blankets so that the dead will have a place to rest.

Many cultures use one day to honor children (known as Dia de los Inocentes) and the second to honor adults.

A skull is placed on a table with food typical for the celebration of the Day of the Dead in San Jose Peten November 1, 2006. Celebrations of the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) started late in this small community in the far north of Guatemala, where three skulls were shown in a mass and one of them was paraded around town to different houses. People prayed to the skulls and then ate typical food to commemorate the occasion. REUTERS/Carlos Duarte

The Food

Food is an important element of Day of the Dead, and the ofrendas (offerings) can be both sweet and savory. One of the most popular is pan de muertos, sweet loaves of bread that are decorated with bone-shaped strips of dough. Food varies by region, but traditional Mayan food like mucbil pollo (chicken tamales) is typically served at Dia de los Muertos celebrations, especially in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Candy skulls are seen for sale as part of Dia De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead festivities in Los Angeles November 1, 2007. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The Skulls

Skulls are, perhaps, the most enduring image of the holiday, and skull candy and skull masks play prominent roles in the festivities. The macabre imagery has its origins in history with the actual skulls used in celebrations. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.

The Mariachi band Lindas Mexicanas prepare to perform during a celebration of the Day of the Death or Dia de los Muertos in Los Angeles, California. REUTERS / Hector Mata

Celebrations around the World

Traditionally associated with Mexico, the celebration has traveled around the world, often blending local cultural influences with ancient traditions. In Spain, the holiday is celebrated with huge festivals and parades. However, in Brazil, you are more likely to find families visiting cemeteries for quiet ceremonies.

Mexican-American communities across the U.S. celebrate with festivals that fuse formal tradition with a modern flare. The Hollywood Forever ceremony in California, for example, combines Aztec rituals with DJs, costume contests, and rock tributes.

Dia de los Muertos is also a popular time for U.S. residents to cross over into Mexico to enjoy the festivities. Large festivals in Cancun, the Mayan Riviera, and Playa del Carmen draw many foreign tourists who come to view the artists, dancers, storytellers, and musicians from the local Maya communities.

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