This is the story of Dia de los Muertos

By Jeff Ayers — / Death Wish Coffee Blog


As the year gets closer to the modern American holiday of Halloween, it is also quickly approaching the much older celebration of Dia de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. (in most English speaking countries, the back translation is Dia de los Muertos).

But what is the origin of the holiday that celebrates the dead? In Mexican culture, death is viewed as a natural part of the human cycle, and death is not meant to be remembered in sadness. This is a three day celebration of the life of those who have died, and the hope that their souls might awaken while in death to celebrate with the living.

Over 3,000 years ago the Aztecs and other Nahua people living in now what is considered Central America held this cyclical view of the universe and wanted to honor the deceased with respect. It was believed that when someone died they traveled to the land of the dead, named Chicunamictlan. Over the course of many years they would have to navigate through nine levels to hopefully reach the final resting place, Mictlan. So the living family members of the deceased would leave food, water, and tools to help aid them on their difficult journey.

These initial ceremonies were usually held around the end of summer, but when the Spanish conquistadores came over in the 16th century they brought with them their beliefs of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, altering the ceremony to happen on November 1st and 2nd.

Dia de muertos participants in traditional makeup

In modern day, the ceremony actually last three whole days, From October 31st to November 2nd, but this doesn't mean it is the Mexican version of Halloween. While there are some similarities including costumes and parades, the Day of the Dead is centered around the belief that the border of the spirit world and the real world dissolves, allowing the souls of those who have passed on to come back and celebrate with their living families.

The central part of the ceremony is the ofrenda, or the altar. These are usually built in private in peoples homes or in cemeteries, and are meant to be the meeting place between the living and the dead. The offerings of food and drink are left around photographs of the dead, and the marigold flower is an important symbol of the celebration. In fact, in many cases, marigold petals are used as markers leading the souls to the altar.

Another important symbol is the calavera, or literal translation of 'skull'. Early on, these were in the form of literary poems and funny epitaphs that continues on to this day to help celebrate the dead. Calaveras have taken on a different form in modern day with the sugar skull being a fixture of the celebrations as well.

Man paying tribute at a Dia de muertos altar

While the celebration is a proud Mexican tradition, the Day of the Dead is also celebrated in other parts of the world. In Brazil it is known as Dia de los Finados (Day of the Deceased), in Guatemala families fly giant kites to help guide their loved one's souls back to the land of the living. The holiday is even celebrated in some regions of Australia, Fiji, and the Philippines.

Promotional image from Pixar's "Coco"

The Day of the Dead has made its way into popular culture recently as well. The successful Pixar movie Coco pays homage to the holiday in a beautiful way, with a young boy being transported to the land of the dead. Also, in the James Bond film Spectre, a giant Dia de los Muertos festival was shown in the opening action sequence. This was actually fiction until the movie came out, with no large festival of its kind happening during the Day of the Dead. Since the movie premiered, Mexico was inspired to create the festival in reality, and it still happens today.

RELATED: Check out our Halloween Science series and get ready for new episodes

Older Blogs Newer Blogs