Here’s one thing we know: Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Though related, the two annual events differ greatly in traditions and tone.
Whereas Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. The rituals are rife with symbolic meaning.
The more you understand about this feast for the senses, the more you will appreciate it. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a celebration of life and death.
While the holiday originated in Mexico, it is celebrated all over Latin America with colorful calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons). Learn how the Day of the Dead started and the traditions that make it unique.
Thanks to efforts by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the term “cultural heritage” is not limited to monuments and collections of objects. It also includes living expressions of culture—traditions—passed down from generation to generation.
In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Dia de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Today Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Dia de los Muertos, but at its core, the holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum.
The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Dia de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.
Today’s Dia de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.