Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Día de los Muertos

Published on November 02, 2022
Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Día de los Muertos

Death, as final and tragic as it may seem, doesn’t have to be viewed solely through that Western-centric lens. Many Latinx communities in Mexico and elsewhere celebrate Día de los Muertos, a joyful, vibrant holiday when people prepare food, drinks, and decorations for their deceased loved ones. The long-held belief is that our ancestors return to the earthly realm for a single day to reunite with their families and to receive gifts.

If you’re looking to learn more about the meaning behind this holiday, your search ends here. Ahead, we dig into all the Día de los Muertos facts, history, and more. 

What is Día de los Muertos? 

This lively, spirited celebration helps families honor and pay tribute to their loved ones who have passed away.

When does Día de los Muertos take place?

The holiday is customarily celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, though festivities may begin as early as Oct. 31 and last until Nov. 6, depending on the region. According to tradition, Nov. 1 is for deceased children and Nov. 2 is for deceased adults. 

Where is Día de los Muertos observed? 

Today, Día de los Muertos is predominantly observed in Mexico and in some parts of Central and South America. It’s also becoming more popular among Latinx communities elsewhere, including in the United States.

Where did Día de los Muertos originate? 

It all began in ancient Mesoamerica, otherwise known as present-day Mexico and northern Central America. It was here where Indigenous groups — such as the Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs — marked specific occasions to remember their deceased loved ones. When Spanish colonizers came, this Indigenous ritual of honoring the dead mixed with two Spanish holidays from the Catholic calendar: All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Who is Mictecacihuatl? And what does she have to do with Día de los Muertos?

When Spanish colonizers arrived in 1519, the Aztecs worshipped many gods, including a goddess of death and the underworld called Mictecacihuatl. The ninth month of the Aztec calendar — which lasted approximately 20 days and was more or less around the same time as late July and early August — was dedicated entirely to her.

According to Aztec mythology, Mictecacihuatl was sacrificed as a baby before becoming an adult in the underworld. Mictecacihuatl is often depicted with flayed skin and a gaping, skeletal jaw, and she’s often associated with both death and resurrection. One myth recounts how Mictecacihuatl and her husband collected bones so they could return to earth and be brought back to life. The Aztecs would then bury their dead with food and other precious objects. As for the month-long celebration of Mictecacihuatl, little is known about what it entailed, though burning incense and singing and dancing were likely involved.

Is Día de los Muertos the same as Halloween?

Since Nov. 1-2 happens right after Oct. 31, the two holidays are sometimes bundled together. However, they have totally different origin stories and purposes. Halloween has pagan and Christian traditions, and it’s marked by spooky themes that can sometimes promote a fear of the dead. Meanwhile, Día de los Muertos has Indigenous roots, and it views death and the dead through a more joyful, uplifting lens.

How is Día de los Muertos celebrated? 

Popular Día de los Muertos customs include meeting at cemeteries to enjoy food like pan de muerto, displaying and wearing calaveras (otherwise known as sugar skulls), dressing up in bold costumes, and creating colorful decorations that capture the essence of our deceased loved ones. Another key element of the holiday is the ofrenda, an altar in the home that welcomes the dead back to the land of the living with an assortment of their favorite items.

Which symbols are associated with Día de los Muertos? 

The cempasúchil, a marigold flower native to Mexico, is customarily placed on ofrendas and around graves. Butterflies, skulls, and candles are other widely recognized Día de los Muertos symbols. 

Share your family’s Día de los Muertos traditions with us on Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter at @shoplatinx.