Study Abroad and Cultural Tours Blog

El Día de los Muertos

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

A celebration of loved ones now gone

Mexican day of the dead altar (Dia de Muertos)Halloween, Samhain, All Saints’ Eve, whatever name you’d prefer to use, the 31st of October and the days that follow are celebrated across many cultures as a time to honor the spirits of the dead in one way or another. In Mexico, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) extends over three days from October 31st through November 2nd in memory of relatives that have passed away.

While in the United States skeletons are sometimes seen on Halloween, in Mexico skulls and skeletons are inexorably entwined with this holiday. People paint their faces with elaborate and colorful skull designs, often of archetypal characters found in the country’s popular mythology. The calavera (skull) designs aren’t meant to spook or scare as in Celtic origin traditions; instead they hold a uniquely positive symbolism meant to evoke the memories of dear ones gone, and empower the wearer in vanquishing their fear of death.  The images extend throughout all the décor, including the Day of the Dead altars, special foods to place at the graves of family, and even on the sweet sugar breads (pan dulce) traditional at this time of year.

52225bbc-4547-47f4-b3e1-fb622da70eb5While the feast is now celebrated during the Catholic holy days of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’, and All Souls, its origins go back much further.  Many of the tenants of the celebration can even be traced back to pre-Colombian times, when the festivities once encompassed the month of August. One of the most popular skeleton icons of this holiday, La Catrina, is taken from the Aztec goddess “Lady of the Dead.”  La Catrina and the other calaca (skeleton figurines) are elaborate creations. They are used to decorate homes during Día de los Muertos and depict deceased family members in a unique, artistic and fun way.

It’s interesting to see the similarities between disparate cultures that can be found in one single holiday. Perhaps it’s a sign of a common denominator in the human condition that developed over centuries through globalization into the celebrations we know today.

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