This Is What Día de los Muertos *actually* Celebrates

"On this day especially, we are reminded that in death, we’re all equal."

On November 1st and 2nd, families in Mexico, as well as those in the U.S. and other parts of Latin America, create altars, leave offerings, and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed. Known as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, this holiday isn’t a somber occasion, nor is it the same as Halloween. It’s a day to celebrate, to remember, to honor, and to cherish those who are no longer with us in the physical world.

Primarily celebrated in Mexico—and emphasized in the states of Michoacán, Jalisco, and Oaxaca—the Día de los Muertos includes families gathering, decorating altars at home, and in cemeteries, leaving ofrendas (or offerings), and partaking in festivities to honor loved ones.

Día de los Muertos was originally an Aztec harvest holiday, which took place in September.

When Spanish conquistadors started to invade, they tried to tie the holiday to the Catholic holiday of All Saints Day, a day to pray for God’s mercy on all souls. That’s when Día de los Muertos was moved to November and marked as a sacred holiday to honor the dead.

Traditionally, the lives of children who have died are celebrated on November 1st, with adults being celebrated on November 2nd. Both are honored with homemade altars decorated in bright colors, candles, ofrendas, and paper cut out in the shapes of skulls and skeletons (called “papel picado”), or punched/pierced paper that’s said to represent the “wind and the fragility of life.

Altars are created as a reminder that the deceased haven’t been forgotten, that their lives are still being honored, and as a welcome back to the spirits who are said to visit during the holiday.

Perhaps the most famous symbols of this celebration are the sugar skulls: brightly painted skulls that can be made out of sugar and left as offerings, and La Catrina, or “the lady in the hat,” who’s a skeleton woman wearing a brightly colored dress. People paint their faces as sugar skulls and this motif, alongside La Catrina, can be seen far and wide during the festivities. These symbols remind us not to be scared of death, but to laugh with her; that we’re all the same in the end, and that it’s important to celebrate life while we’re living.

Those who celebrate Día de los Muertos believe the spirits of those who have passed are able to come back and communicate with their loved ones.

Families gather in cemeteries to celebrate. They create altars on graves; leave clothing, alcohol, and toys out for the dead; join in parades; and take time to honor and celebrate their loved ones.

Since many cemeteries in Mexico are publicly owned, cleaning the graves, picking the weeds, and general maintenance are also part of the celebration. Marigolds are a traditional flower in the celebration, and are used as an offering to remind the spirits to find their way back home. Special foods are eaten to commemorate the holiday, too—like Pan De Muerto, a special kind of bread made once a year that can be eaten with hot chocolate.

In Mexico, and now in other countries that celebrate, on this holiday specifically, death isn’t seen as a looming force outside of our control that we should be scared of.

Instead, death is personified as La Catrina: a thing worth acknowledging and a reminder to celebrate the lives of those who have passed, instead of only mourning them. On this day especially, we are reminded that in death, we’re all equal, and since she’s coming for all of us at some point or another, we may as well fête the moment with her.

As Día de los Muertos occurs today, we’re in the mindset of celebrating, and we’re reminded that life is always worth honoring. So however you celebrate, we hope you have a chance to remember your loved ones and enjoy the festivities involved.

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