Towards the end of October, it’s common to see a barrage of dancing skeleton cartoons and sugar skulls. And while it’s easy to assume this is because of Halloween, it’s actually another annual festival that we have to thank entirely.
Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos in Spanish, is a holiday that originated thousands of years ago in Mexico. Even though it’s often thought of as interchangeable with Halloween, the two are different holidays, with unique roots and traditions.
To begin with, they’re celebrated on different days; while Halloween falls on October 31, Day of the Dead is annually observed on November 1 and 2. On these days, it is believed that the gate between the spirit world and real world dissolves, and families welcome the souls of deceased relatives with food, drink and celebrations.
Although the main festivities are held on November 2, November 1 is known as All Saints' Day, when the spirits of children or the innocent can join their families for 24 hours.
The origins of the Day of the Dead can be traced back to the Aztecs, who had a unique way of honouring the deceased. According to this belief, once a person died, they had to undergo a gruelling and time-consuming journey to reach Mictlan, the final resting place.
Families would provide water, food and other tools that they believed could aid the deceased, which led to the modern Day of the Dead tradition of creating ofrendas, or special altars, with the deceased’s favourite food and drinks as well as photos and memorabilia. The intent is the same: to encourage the souls on their journey and pay tribute to them.
While the festival was previously believed to be celebrated during summer, with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, it was moved to the first two days of November.
Today, versions of the Day of the Dead are celebrated in a few other Catholic countries around the world.
In the Philippines, All Saints' Day or Undas, is observed on November 1, with families honouring deceased relatives by gathering at their graves and offering food, flowers, candles and prayers. In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died.
Despite its rather sombre-sounding backstory, Day of the Dead isn’t seen as a solemn occasion in Mexico. In fact, one of the biggest differences between it and Halloween is the manner in which it is celebrated: while Halloween regards spirits as things that need to be avoided, Day of the Dead celebrates the spirits of the deceased, with families welcoming the departed back the land of the living.
It’s why the day is filled with colourful decorations, street parties, music, dances and puppets. In some parts of the country, families open their doors to anyone interested in viewing the ofrendas.
Sugar skulls are made — both edible and non-edible versions — to be used as decorations, to be placed on ofrendas or to be eaten. Food plays an important role in the festival, too, with pan de muerto, a type of sweet bread, and atole, a hot beverage with masa, cinnamon and brown sugar, being popular treats.
Flowers play an important role as well, with marigolds being the flower of choice for Day of the Dead. There are many possible explanations behind their use, from them being in season to their bright hue to their scent helping attract and guide visiting souls.
Perhaps nothing is as symbolic of the pomp and humour with which it is celebrated as La Calavera Catrina, loosely translating to “elegant skull”. Originally a cartoon created by Jose Guadalupe Posada in the 1940s, it’s what gave rise to the popular sugar skull make-up, sweets and paintings that are symbolic of the festival today.