Día de los Muertos: The importance of Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead Display(right front table detail)

Creative Commons
Day of the Dead is held to honor deceased loved ones.


With October coming to an end, two important holidays are approaching: Halloween and Day of The Dead. These holidays are often seen as interchangeable because they are so close together, but that could not be farther from the truth.

Day of the Dead is a three-day-long celebration that occurs primarily in Mexico, but it is also celebrated by those of Mexican descent all throughout the United States and Latin America. According to its lore, it is the time of year where the spirits of deceased loved ones are able to come back and visit their families.

Day of the Dead originally formed from the Catholic celebration of All Saints’ Day, which is celebrated on Nov. 1 in predominantly Catholic countries, like Spain. When this two-day holiday was brought to Mexico during its colonization, the indigenous people combined the original Aztec customs that occurred on the last day of October with the first two days in November.

On All Saints’ Day, it is traditional to have a large mass at the church followed by a trip to the gravestones of loved ones, where the gravestones are cleaned to honor the dead. Nowadays, gravestones are decorated with flowers and wreaths.

Despite its close proximity to Halloween, these two holidays have little in common. There is no trick-or-treating and no candy. Many Latin Americans view Day of the Dead as a more intimate gathering of family members for joyful celebration, rather than a scary or haunted one.

National Geographic Kids explains the tradition in an article that describes what to wear, what to do and how to celebrate. Families will lay out food and treats for the visiting spirits and display skeletons as a reminder that death is a part of life.

A huge feast is prepared with “ofrendas,” or offerings, of the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks. Flowers and sugar skulls decorate a huge altar, which is displayed before the graveyard, where people come to visit at night to speak to their departed family members.

The sugar skulls, which are a popular costume for Halloween-goers, are part of this tradition. The skull makers will decorate the front of the skull with the name and paintings of the deceased, which are intended for admiration. They represent the departed soul and are used to guide their visit back.

It’s an important part in the stories of Mexico, which is why dressing up as a sugar skull is viewed as culturally appropriative, as it pertains to specific folk art of Mexico. It is true that non-latinx people will decorate their faces as a sugar skull, but that is during the three-day celebrations in order to honor the souls of the departed.

In the midst of your Halloween celebration, keep the importance of the Day of the Dead in mind, because it can be easy to confuse this day of love with the scary traditions of Halloween.

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