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Day of the Dead
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About the Day of the Dead

DAY OF THE DEAD (Día de Muertos) has been an important celebration in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. The Mexica [meˈxika] (Aztecs) memorialized their dead for two months in the summer: Miccailhuitontli (for children) and Hueymicailhuitl (for adults). Spaniards introduced the Catholic calendar and moved the practice of honoring the dead to All Souls Day, celebrated on November 2nd.

The tradition is rooted in the native Mexican belief that life on earth is a preparation for the next world and of the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with the dead. Families gather in the cemetery during this celebration to welcome the souls on their annual visit home. People prepare altars known as ofrendas with traditional ephemeral elements for the season, such as cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, copal incense, fresh pan de muerto bread, candles, papel picado, and calaveras (sugar skulls). Photographs, mementos, and favorite items used by the departed are included.

The Mexica believed that when a person died, their teyolia, or inner force, went to one of several afterworlds, depending on how they died, their social position, and their profession (not by their conduct in life). There were special afterworlds for children, warriors, women in labor, people who died by drowning, and all others. This practice still endures today, with special altars built on October 28 for people who have died in accidental deaths, November 1 for deceased children, and November 2 for adults who have died a natural death. The Mexican diaspora has taken this tradition to celebrate it across borders. Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders continues this tradition by highlighting important contemporary themes and popular public figures.

Our past Day of the Dead celebrations.

Here are some frequently asked questions.

Is the name of the holiday Día de los Muertos or Día de Muertos?


In Mexico, the celebration is traditionally called Día de Muertos. However, in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, it is often referred to as Día de los Muertos, a back-translation of the Day of the Dead into Spanish. We use the original name of the holiday.

When is the Day of the Dead celebrated? 

In Mexico, people prepare for the Day of the Dead well in advance. Farmers sow flowers, and artisans craft decorations, sugar skulls, folk art, and other items for the festivities. The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico from October 28 to November 2. In many rural areas, the celebrations begin on October 28. However, the festivities mostly occur in larger cities and metropolitan areas on November 1 and 2.

Do people dress up or wear face skull makeup for the Day of the Dead? 

During the traditional observance of Día de Muertos, it is not customary to wear costumes or makeup. Instead, it is a time for families and communities to come together to honor and celebrate their loved ones. While the trend of dressing up and wearing sugar skull or Catrina makeup has become popular, these practices are not part of the traditional celebrations and are new additions to the festivities.

Is the Day of the Dead celebrated with parades? 

 

It's important to note that parades are not traditionally associated with the Day of the Dead. In fact, they were only introduced as a concept by Hollywood producers. Until recently, parades were a rare occurrence. However, in 2016, a Day of the Dead parade was held in Mexico City, inspired by the James Bond movie Spectre, and the extras who participated in the film made it an annual event. Since then, the parade has gained popularity, and many people have started organizing their parades, taking inspiration from the Mexico City event. It's crucial to note that parades can give first-time observers a false impression of how the Day of the Dead is celebrated.

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Section of Diego Rivera's 1947 fresco, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park."  The four figures in the center are, from right to left, the printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, La Catrina (the Skeleton), the painter Frida Kahlo (behind La Catrina), and Diego Rivera as a young man (in front of Kahlo). Museo Mural Diego Rivera, originally, Hotel del Prado, Mexico City; photo: Garrett Ziegler, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

La Calavera Catrina - created by printmaker José Guadalupe Posada around 1910. Photo of the print taken in 2013 at the Mexican Museum of San Francisco by staff of Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders.

Who is La Catrina, and what does she represent in celebrating the Day of the Dead?

 

The Catrina is a female skeleton with a fancy hat that has become a symbol of the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos. The Catrina was first created in 1910 by artist José Guadalupe Posada as a satire of upper-class women during his era. Diego Rivera included La Catrina in his 1947 painting "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," making her a national icon. The Catrina represents the idea that death is inevitable and equalizes everyone, regardless of their social status or wealth.

 

It is worth noting that while her imagery has been incorporated into the Day of the Dead celebrations, her presence is minimal or absent in traditional rural celebrations.

 

La Catrina is now common during the Day of the Dead celebrations in large cities, often appearing in costumes, makeup, and artwork. However, it wasn't always linked to the holiday. This association has become more prevalent recently, particularly with the emergence of social media.

 

Is the Day of the Dead the same as Halloween in Mexico?

The Day of the Dead and Halloween are two distinct and unrelated holidays. The Day of the Dead is a holiday that originated in pre-Hispanic times in central Mexico. It is celebrated to honor and welcome the departed. On the other hand, Halloween has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain in Northern Europe. It is celebrated on October 31, the eve of All Saints' Day. During Samhain, people dressed up in costumes and lit bonfires to protect themselves from evil spirits.

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