Day of the Dead and What it Means to Celebrate It

With the popularity of the Disney movie Coco, Day of the Dead has become a pretty well-known holiday. Yet, even if you have seen the movie, you may still be wondering what it’s all about. Where did this tradition come from? What do all the flowers and skeletons mean? Here is everything you need to know about Day of the Dead.

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a holiday celebrated throughout Latin America, but it originated in Mexico.

Instead of being a celebration of ghouls and goblins, Day of the Dead is a time to celebrate and honor loved ones who have passed away. Participants believe that on November 1st and 2nd, the dead awaken and their spirits come to visit their living family members. The living prepare a feast and receive the spirits as honored guests.

Where did Day of the Dead originate?

According to the History Channel, Day of the Dead originated around 3,000 years ago with the Nahua and Aztec people. They believed that life is cyclical and death is just a normal part of that cycle. Therefore, they created a celebration to honor this part of the cycle.

Originally, the Nahua celebrated the dead in August. However, when the Spanish invaded Mexico, they brought with them All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which is celebrated the first two days of November. As a part of these celebrations, the Spanish would decorate graves with flowers and candles to help the dead find their way back to their homes on earth. Therefore, the Day of the Dead celebrations we witness today is a mixture of these two cultural traditions.

What are the Day of the Dead Traditions?

In Mexico, November 1st is “Dia de los Inocentes” (Day of the Innocents) or “Dia de los Angelitos” (Day of the Little Angels), which is basically a day to celebrate the lives of young children who have passed. The celebration for adults is the following day, on November 2.

During these celebrations, family members go to the cemetery to clean and decorate the gravestones. Sometimes they place items that their family members loved in life on the gravestones. Other families just place these items on an altar for the deceased in their homes.

On the 1st and 2nd , the family gathers for a feast and celebration in remembrance of those who have passed away. The belief is that during these two days, the spirits of those who have passed away are present and celebrating alongside their living family members.

What is the meaning of the Day of the Dead decorations?

The altars are the focus of Day of the Dead celebration. Baby’s breath, which represents the purity of children, adorns the altars of children, alongside toys, candy, and food that children enjoy such as sweet tamales, and atole.

For adults, the altars are covered with marigolds, the iconic orange flower that represents Day of the Dead. In some areas, the flower petals are also used to make a path that leads the souls back home to the family. Instead of sweet tamales they have spicy ones and trade the atloe for that adult’s beverage of choice. The food symbolizes an offering to the souls to welcome them home.

In addition to the tamales and atole, each region also offers the dead “pan de muerto” or bread of the dead. This is a special type of bread made during the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Each altar also has a picture of the people who have passed away, which represents his or her presence. Candles line the altars to light the way back home for the souls. Some altars also have papel picado or cut/chiseled paper with images of saints, skulls, and skeletons and are used as a tablecloth to decorate the altar.

The candy skulls and people dressed as skeletons, or La Catrina, are symbols of the reality of death. They are not meant to be scary but instead normalize death as a part of the cycle of life.

Can I take part in a Day of the Dead celebration if I am not Mexican?

Of course, you can! However, if you are going to attend a public celebration or celebrate with another family, remember to be respectful. The point of the celebration is to take time to remember loved ones. That means it may not be the best place for selfies or Facebook lives. Instead, unplug and take the time to enjoy being with other people.

If you are in the US, you can check here to see if there will be a Day of the Dead celebration near you. If you are feeling super adventurous, hop on a plane and head to Mexico to witness Day of the Dead first hand.

If neither of those is an option, you could also consider having your own Day of the Dead celebration in your home.

Day of the Dead and What it Means to Celebrate It

If I want to go to Mexico during Day of the Dead, where should I go?

You could honestly go anywhere in Mexico to experience Day of the Dead alongside the locals but according to TripSavvy, you will find the most colorful festivities in the Southern Region of Mexico. Some popular destinations for Day of the Dead explorers are Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán and Mexico City.

Won’t a Day of the Dead Celebration scare my child?

Remember, Day of the Dead is not Halloween. It is not mean to be scary. Day of the dead is a time of connection and remembrance. In fact, if your child fears death or if you have recently lost a loved one, it may be helpful for your family to take some time to address the reality of death and remember those in your family who are no longer with you.

If you’d like to learn more about how to have your own Day of the Dead celebration, download this free three day activity guide that will walk you through bringing culture, joy and connection into your family through your own Day of the Dead celebration this October 31st-November 2nd.

Bio: Vanessa Ruiz loves all things language, culture, and diversity. She is the mother of a bilingual, bicultural child and works full time supporting immigrant families. You can find her at Families Embracing Diversity where she guides families to learn to love their differences today to give their children a better tomorrow.

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