Depending on your heritage and where you grew up, you may already have a keen understanding of today’s word. If not, well, it can easily be a little confusing: it’s not like Halloween, it’s not scary, it’s not fully Christian, it’s (technically) not a single day, and, oddly enough, it’s not fully Mexican, but not completely Spanish either. On the other hand, like many things in life, it’s not exactly complicated either – it just takes a bit of explaining.
Since the best place to start is at the beginning, let’s examine the name first. Literally translated, Dia de Muertos means “Day of the Dead,” but in a larger sense, it applies to the Christian (especially Catholic, in this sense) holiday of All Souls’ Day. Though some include the los and others don’t, both are technically correct: the usage of los in the name is mainly an Anglophone addition; however, for day that precedes it, All Saints’ Day, or Día de Todos los Santos in Mexican Spanish, the los is included. The first recorded use of both terms in Spanish can be traced back to at least the first half of the 1600s, if not earlier, but, in English, the first use of the name (notably in relation to Mexico) can be found in a headline the 21 January, 1888 edition of the Wisconsin State Register, which mentions: “The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Most of the candy stands have an assortment of skulls in white or cream hued sugar.”
Dia de Muertos does share something very important with our concept of Halloween, but it isn’t the use of skulls and scaring people. Much in the same way that many of our well-known Halloween customs, such as a jack-o’-lantern, wearing a costume, and the increased activity of spirits and faeries hearken back to Celtic beliefs and practices long before the advent of Christianity, Dia de Muertos’ roots can be found in ancient Aztec festivals honouring the goddess Mictēcacihuātl, queen of the underworld. Rather than going through the long and arduous task of attempting to replace the belief system of the indigenous people wholesale, the introduction of Christianity locally also included the use of some native beliefs in order to make conversion easier and more acceptable. So, much like the day before All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day, originally called All Hallows Evening (or Halloween, for short), incorporated many Celtic practices in the British Isles, the idea of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1st and 2nd) in Mexico have evolved to include Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) to honour children on November 1st as well as Día de los Difuntos/Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) to honour adults on November 2nd.
While, in many ways, Dia de Muertos is parallel to Spanish practices imported by the conquistadors on All Souls’ Day, including customs like bringing food and wine to the graves of loved ones, cleaning and maintaining the grave, and covering the grave with flowers and lit candles, Mexicans have, through heritage and individuality, made the festivities their own. For example, like their Aztec ancestors, using orange Mexican marigolds, favourite food and drink of the deceased, as well as photos and memorabilia, Mexicans construct altars (ofrendas) to either decorate their loved ones’ graves or construct an altar in their own home. Aside offerings for the deceased, typical fare for the living often includes tamales, pan de muerto (a sweet bread topped with bone-shaped pieces), sugar skulls called calaveras which are decorated to represent the individual personality of the deceased, and an alcoholic drink made from fermented agave sap (pulque), among other food and drink preferred by the deceased.
Aside from the food, perhaps the most enduring symbols of Dia de Muertos are the calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls) created by famed cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, whose most popular work reimagines the Aztec goddess of the underworld as a female skeleton called La Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Skull). From this same font of gallows humour used by Posada, newspapers in the late 18th or early 19th century started the now widely instituted use of short poems (called calaveras literarias (skulls literature)) and mocking epitaphs to describe amusing or interesting habits of individuals.
Blending old and new, spiritual and physical, in a way that honours the dead and teaches us to enjoy family and laugh at our own shortcomings and mortality, it’s quintessentially Mexican and a holiday worthwhile in its own right.