Learn about the history and cultural significance behind Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead
Even in Texas, fall can be a cold and dreary time of year. The sun wanes, the skies are grey, and the leaves begin to fall. But for some, November 1st and 2nd is a time for celebration; a time when the spirits of lost loved ones return to their friends and family as the living honor the lives of the dead. This is a multi-day tradition intended to celebrate the departed through joy and cheer rather than grief or sorrow. This is Día de los Muertos!
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a national holiday in Mexico, but it is often observed by Mexican communities across the globe - including communities here in Texas! That's why today, we'll explore the rich history, culture, and customs behind this tradition as we continue our series, "Celebrating Texans!" Read on!
What is Día de los Muertos?
Día de los Muertos
, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday with Mexican origins celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. It is primarily observed in Mexico but it often celebrated in other countries, especially in places where people of Mexican heritage can be found. Although it is difficult to attribute the modern-day celebration to any single source, it is heavily inspired by a collection of ancient indigenous traditions as well as some European Catholic celebrations.
During the two-day celebration, friends and family members gather to honor and remember loved ones who have died. Rather than being a solemn holiday filled with grief, Día de los Muertos is meant to be a joyous event filled with colorful traditions and practices. It is about celebrating death as a natural part of the human experience, just like birth, childhood, and adulthood. For those who observe and practice these traditions, the dead are still an important part of the community and seek to invite their spirits to join them as they celebrate loved ones who have passed, honoring them with prayers, food, drinks, dancing, and music.
Where did Día de los Muertos originate? The history of Día de los Muertos
Like many cultural celebrations, Día de los Muertos does not come from one single source, but is an amalgamation of many different traditions from many different peoples, passed down through the years from generation to generation.
Celebrations of the indigenous peoples
For many people indigenous to modern-day Mexico and Latin America, celebrations similar to Día de los Muertos were an important part of life in pre-Columbian times.
Hundreds of years before European colonization of the the Americas, indigenous peoples
, such as Aztec, Yoeme, Tlapanec, Nahuas, Totonac, and Zapotec had their own celebrations for the departed. Despite the unique elements each culture brought to their respective celebrations, they shared a similar reverence for the dead and viewed death not as something to be feared, but as a natural part of the cycle of life. At various times throughout the year, they practiced these traditions to honor their dead, some even welcoming their spirits to join them for a short time.
All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Allhallowtide
Across the world in Europe, Catholics also had a holiday honoring the dead. As the name suggests, All Saints Day
was a holiday intended to commemorate the saints and martyrs of the time. On November 1st, vigils and feasts are held, and in some countries such as Spain, graves of loved ones were adorned with flowers.
While All Saints Day was meant to honor saints and martyrs, All Souls Day
was a solemn day for prayer and remembrance for the souls of all those who had died. For many Catholics in Europe, All Souls Day followed All Saints Day on November 2nd and were collectively known as "Allhallowtide." Specific traditions and customs varied between country and region, but also between the specific Christian denominations, many of whom observed some version of these two holidays.
Día de los Muertos: A blend of traditions
As Europeans came to colonize Latin America in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, many Catholic missionaries brought with them their respective traditions
, holidays, and celebrations. Although there is some disagreement among historians as to the exact way in which indigenous and colonial traditions merged to form Día de los Muertos, it is clear that the modern-day celebration has elements that can be traced back to both.
That having been said, modern Día de los Muertos celebrations don't all look the same and many of the traditions and customs vary between countries, regions, and even towns. To a large extent, this is because local indigenous customs are often incorporated into the celebration, making Día de los Muertos a truly unique expression of culture.
Día de los Muertos traditions and festivities
The celebration of Día de los Muertos is comprised of many different festivities, practices, rituals, and traditions - far too many to list them all! Like many important cultural events, practices can vary, but there are certain elements that are more or less consistent across cultures.
Home altars, ofrendas
Perhaps one of the most recognizable and important traditions is the creation of ofrendas
, or altars for the departed. Families come together to create these personal altars to honor loved ones that have passed, decorating them with flowers, photographs, candles, food, candies, drinks, and other trinkets or mementos - items that remind them of the person, or things that were important to them in life.
Families may place ofrendas in their home, but may also place them on or near their graves. Apart from honoring and commemorating the deceased, ofrendas are meant to attract the souls of loved ones, inviting them to hear the prayers offered by the living and join them for the duration of the celebration.
Mexican marigold, cempasúchil
These beautiful yellow flowers, often called flor de muertos
, or "flower of the dead,"
are the traditional flowers used to decorate graves and adorn ofrendas during Día de los Muertos. It is thought that the vibrant color and strong scent can attract and guide souls home.
Imagery of skulls, skeletons, and bones are an integral part of Día de los Muertos traditions, and their depictions can be found in many of the indigenous, pre-columbian celebrations as well. They represent death, but also rebirth, transitioning from one stage of life to the next.
The term "calaveras
" most often refers to small decorative skulls, usually made from sugar, but also clay and chocolate. These sugar skulls may be decorated with beads, foil, and brightly colored icing and frequently feature the name of a deceased individual on the forehead. They are given out and sold as treats, but are also made to place at graves or in ofrendas as offerings for their loved ones who have passed.
Apart from sugar skulls, images and depictions of skeletons, or calacas, can be seen in many places and are usually dressed in fancy or extravagant clothing and are generally joyous rather than mournful or macabre. This comes from the idea that the dead souls don't wish to be thought of sadly and that the afterlife is a happy, joyous place.
In some regions, people dress up as these colorful stylized skeletons for parades and festivals, or paint their faces to look like calaveras. In fact, face painting is popular tradition during Día de los Muertos in Mexico.
Not everything about Día de los Muertos is the same everywhere it is celebrated. The traditions of Día de los Muertos are as diverse as the people who practice them. Although there are plenty of aspects that share a similar theme, specific customs can change from town to town even within Mexico
For example, in the town of Pátzcuaro, they dress in costumes, wearing skull-shaped masks and devil masks and dance in the central garden in the town. At midnight, candles are lit to guide them as they ride winged boats to Janitzio, an island in the middle of a lake, to celebrate the dead who rest in the cemetery found there.
In Ocotepec, households where a person has died in the previous year open their doors, offering tamales and a traditional drink called atole to visitors who bring candles to show respect for the dead. Children may also participate in La Danza de los Viejitos, or the Dance of Old Men. During this tradition, young men dress as their grandfathers or older men and perform a lively dance.
Traditions outside of Mexico
Outside of Mexico, people in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Guatemala practice their own variations of Día de los Muertos. In Bolivia, indigenous Andeans crown the skulls of their deceased family members with fresh flowers and make offerings to their spirits. In Ecuador, the indigenous Kichwa peoples clean and decorate the graves of loved ones before taking part in a day-long ceremony honoring the dead in the cemetery. Some Guatemalans decorate large kites and attach notes to the spirits of lost loved ones before flying them. These are just a few of the countless ways Día de los Muertos is celebrated locally across Latin America.
Difference between Día de los Muertos and Halloween
Another fall-time holiday, Halloween, also has roots in the Catholic holiday known as All Saints Day and in fact, "All Hallows Eve" is another name for All Saints Day. Because both Día de los Muertos and Halloween were partially influenced by All Saints Day, and because of certain thematic similarities, there is a common misconception
that Día de los Muertos is simply a version of Halloween celebrated in Mexico and Latin America.
Despite some similarities between their respective traditions, Día de los Muertos is quite different than Halloween, and it bears a great deal of cultural and spiritual significance to those who observe it each year.
Día de los Muertos today
For many years, Día de los Muertos was not necessarily a widely-known holiday in the United States
outside of Mexican American communities. But as the cultural landscape shifts and these communities grow, Día de los Muertos has begun to occupy a more substantial portion of the public consciousness.
Día de los Muertos celebrations in the United States
During the past several decades, celebrations have grown from small, local events to large festivals that attract visitors from all around. Just as communities across Mexico and Latin America impart their own traditions to the larger celebration, Mexican American communities across the United States have found new, unique ways to honor these customs.
For example, The All Souls Procession in Tucson, Arizona
is a unique take on Día de los Muertos. Performers, artists, musicians, and people from all walks of life gather for a two-mile procession filled with art, signs, costumes, and altars to honor the dead. At the end, they burn a large urn which participants fill with hopes, dreams, and prayers to the departed written on pieces of paper. What began as a small ceremony in 1990 has since expanded into a two-day gathering of over 150,000 visitors.
Similarly, in Old Town San Diego, California
, thousands gather for a candlelight procession to El Campo Santo Cemetery. They bring food, drinks, photos, and mementos of lossed loved ones to place at the public altar.
Día de los Muertos in popular media
Mass media, such as newspapers and film, often take an active role in the evolution of customs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Día de los Muertos picked up a new tradition known as "calaveras literarias
," which translates directly to "literary skulls." These are humorous and somewhat irreverent epitaphs written in rhyming verse which feature comedic, absurd situations, often poking fun at friends, classmates, family members, or coworkers (living or dead). They are written as though the intended recipient is dead and usually include cartoon skulls or skeletons and have become a staple of the holiday in modern Mexico.
In more recent years, Día de los Muertos has also begun to appear more frequently in American cinema. In 2017, Disney Pixar released the movie Coco to great critical acclaim, which features many elements of the Día de los Muertos holiday and traditions.
In 2015, the James Bond film, Spectre, featured a large Día de los Muertos parade in the opening sequence. Interestingly enough, no such parade existed before that point. However, with the popularity of the film, the government wanted to find a way to promote Mexican culture throughout the world, so the next year, they organized massive Día de los Muertos parade in 2016
, which attracted tens of thousands of people.
As we have seen, Día de los Muertos has grown in popularity throughout the last several decades, and communities across the world have found new ways to celebrate and add to the traditions of old. However, many people recognize the historical and cultural significance of Día de los Muertos and the constituent practices from which it was derived. To help preserve the original historical customs, the traditions of Día de los Muertos were added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO
Other organizations have taken steps to help preserve and honor these customs through education. For example, The Smithsonian Institution and the University of Texas at El Paso have even taken dia virtual with Día de los Muertos virtual exhibits in the Latino Virtual Museum
. This project has a number of digital exhibits and ebooks featuring information about the origins of the oldest, most important aspects of the holiday.
Where is Día de los Muertos celebrated in Texas?
Just as descendants of German immigrants celebrate the Oktoberfest tradition of their homeland, many Texans of Mexican, Hispanic, and Latino descent organize and celebrate the traditions of Día de los Muertos around every November.
This means Día de los Muertos celebrations can be found in many communities across the Lone Star State! The following are just a few of the communities taking part.
is a two-day Día de los Muertos at Hemisfair Park in San Antonio and has been voted one of the best fall festivals in the USA by National Geographic. These are some of the many events to look forward to:
- Community ofrenda altar
- Live poetry and music
- Art vendors
- Family workshops
- Several Día de los Muertos themed processions
Día de los Muertos CCTX
is one of the most popular celebrations in Corpus Christi and has been recognized as one of the best Día de los Muertos festivals in Texas for the last six of the fourteen years it has been held. It features:
- Multiple professional and youth art installations
- Community ofrenda altar, as well as a virtual altar
- Family workshops, including a Día de los Muertos paint along and a sugar skull decorating class
Check out Viva la Vida Fest
at Mexic-Arte Museum
to see Día de los Muertos celebrated through a unique and vibrant collection of art! Browse the collection virtually or visit in person to enjoy additional festivities, such as:
- Traditional baked treat, Pan de Muerto - free!
- Bring your smartphone to watch an animated mural come to life through Augmented Reality
- Parade props - Display of large, colorful parade props called Mojigangas
- Store with traditional Día de los Muertos goodies, like calaveras
- Mexic-Arte Museum Open House with exhibits featuring a variety of artists
MECA presents Día de los Muertos Festival
in Houston for the 21st year! This event plays host to the annual Ofrenda Exhibition
where families in the community can submit their own unique altars to celebrate the lives of their ancestors and departed loved ones. Additional activities include:
- Dancing and live music
- Artists and artisan vendors
- Cultural cuisine
- Children's art activities
Día de los Muertos in a Texas town near you!
These are just a few of the many communities in Texas that gather to honor and celebrate the dearly departed during Día de los Muertos! Festivities and events can be found in Dallas
, El Paso
- the list goes on. If you don't see your community listed here, visit the website of your local museum, civic or event center, or county visitor center to find a Día de los Muertos event near you!
Whether it's Oktoberfest
, Día de los Muertos, or any other holiday, these vibrant traditions enrich our culture and what it means to be a Texan - that's worth celebrating! As we join our neighbors in celebrating these traditions, it is important to remember the significance they have to the people who practice them.
If you're interested in attending such an event, consider reaching out to a friend, family member, neighbor, or coworker who observes these traditions to learn more about their customs beforehand. Take a moment to learn the meaning behind the festivities so that together, we can celebrate our fellow Texans respectfully.
Stay tuned as we continue to explore more of the wonderful cultural celebrations that Texas has to offer!
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