Día de Los Muertos: A Mexican Celebration of the Deceased

Christi Center members at Dia de Los Muertos festival 2011
Christi Center members at Dia de Los Muertos festival 2011

Evolution of the Holiday

The origins of the modern Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday go back to the ancient Aztecs, the collection of ethnic groups that lived in what is today Mexico. It was originally a month-long celebration overseen by and dedicated to Mictecacihuatl (pronounced ‘Meek-teka-see-wahdl’ or ‘Meek-teka-kee-wadl’), one of the Aztec deities of the underworld and called “Lady of the Dead.” The celebration fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, spanning roughly between mid-July and mid-August.

When Spanish conquistadors invaded and overtook the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, the Spanish tried to eradicate Aztec culture and religion and replace it with Spanish culture and Catholicism. The month-long celebration that corresponds to Día de Los Muertos was reduced to two days, November 1st and 2nd, to coincide with the Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The modern Día de Los Muertos holiday still spans these two days, November 1st being dedicated to children and November 2nd being dedicated to adults. It incorporates aspects of both the original Aztec celebration and Spanish and Catholic influences brought by the conquistadors.

The holiday has diffused all over the world. It is a national holiday in Mexico, but the holiday and derivations of the holiday are practiced in the United States, Latin America, Canada, Spain, and other countries and regions around the world.

Modern Celebration of the Holiday

Particular rituals and traditions of Día de Los Muertos vary all over the world, and even within Mexico itself. We’ll explore the most common rituals and traditions of the holiday celebrated in Mexico and the United States.

Ofrenda altar
An example of an altar with ofrendas (photo by Eneas)

Altars. Celebrants often created altars to their deceased loved ones inside of their homes. Some of the most important items of the altar are ofrendas, or offerings. These are things that are included specifically for the deceased’s benefit. This can include:

  • Candles to welcome the spirit of the deceased back to the altar
  • Marigolds and marigold petals, which symbolize death, to guide the spirit of the deceased to the altar
  • Incense to also guide the spirit of the deceased to the altar
  • The deceased’s favorite foods for the spirit to enjoy
  • Water for the spirit of the deceased’s thirst
  • Toiletries for the spirit of the deceased to freshen up with
  • Favorite belongings of the deceased
  • And anything else that the deceased loved in life for the spirit to enjoy again

Other items are typically included in altars as well, and have their own significant meanings to the holiday:

  • Photos of the deceased
  • Salt to represent the continuance of life
  • Sugar skulls, which are candies made from melted sugar and then poured into molds. They can be used as ofrendas on the altar as well as enjoyed by those celebrating. The sugar skulls are often decorated with bright colors and sometimes have the name of the deceased written on their foreheads
  • Pan de muerto (bread of the dead), which is a sweet bread that is an iconic treat of the holiday. It is often twisted into the shapes of bones. Like sugar skulls, it can both be used as an ofrenda and enjoyed by those celebrating
  • Images of saints or other people that were role models to the deceased
  • Papel picado, which are decorative pieces of cut paper that can be strung around the altar as decoration
  • And anything else that those creating the altar wish to include as decoration or as an offering to the deceased
Dia de Los Muertos at Xoxocotlan Cemetery
Dia de Los Muertos at Xoxocotlan Cemetery (photo by Christine Zenino)

Cleaning and visiting gravesites. Celebrants can also honor the deceased by essentially creating an altar for the deceased at the gravesite. The gravesite is first cleaned and then decorated with any of the same elements and ofrendas used in an indoor altar. Loved ones often have picnics or overnight candlelit vigils at the gravesite after decorating it. These events are typically fun times for reflection on the deceased, and can even include music for the deceased to enjoy!

Calaveras and Calacas. Calaveras, or skulls, and calacas, or skeletons, are some of the most iconic parts of the holiday.

Calaveras de azúcar, or the sugar skull candies mentioned before, is one of the most popular ways that calaveras are incorporated into the holiday.

Calaveras literarias, which translates directly to “literary skulls” and is typically shortened to just calaveras, are humorous poetic obituaries written about people who are still alive as a way to poke fun at them. Calaveras throughout history have often been published in newspapers for anyone to read. One of the most famous calaveras, published in 1910, was about ex-dictator of Mexico, General Porfirio Diaz:

The English man is a skeleton

so is the Italian

and Maximilian;

the Roman Pontiff,

all cardinals

kings, dukes and councilmen

and the Head of State

in the grave are all the same:

only a pile of skeletons.

Calaveras literarias originated as satires of political and other prominent figures, but today they can also be written about anybody and published in newspapers as a form of playful teasing between friends and relatives.

The most famous calaca of the holiday is La Catrina. Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada created the iconic print La Calavera Catrina in 1910 to satirize the culture created by then-dictator General Porfirio Diaz. Diaz promoted the adoption of all things European and the disdain of traditional Mexican culture among the rich; this is symbolized in La Calavera Catrina by her elaborate hat, meant to signify wealthy, European culture.

Diego Rivera depicted an elegant, full-length figure of La Catrina in his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park), completed in 1947. From then on, the La Catrina figure gained a prominent place in Día de Los Muertos and Mexican culture as more than a symbol of satire, but an all-encompassing icon of the holiday itself. For many, La Catrina even stands as the replacement of Mictecacihuatl from ancient Aztec culture as the modern “Lady of the Dead.”

Sugar Skulls
Sugar Skulls (photo by Carmichaellibrary)

Positivity of the Holiday

One of the most important aspects of Día de Los Muertos is that it views death positively. This positivity can be drawn back to its origins in ancient Aztec culture, when death was not seen as an end to a person’s existence, but instead the next chapter. The joy, celebration, and cheeky approach to death inherent in the modern version of the holiday may confuse those who have never encountered it before, since many people view death and remembering those who have died as sad and solemn things. But the sentiment behind the holiday is not to mourn, but rather to both celebrate the journey from life to death and to fondly remember and honor loved ones who have passed on.

The holiday can provide a different approach to grief in other ways as well. I talked to a friend about his experience with the holiday growing up, and he said he first grew to appreciate the holiday after his grandfather died. He said the wake and funeral for his grandfather had felt more about his family instead of his grandfather, because everyone was still saddened by losing him and thus spent the services mostly comforting each other. The first celebration of Día de Los Muertos after his grandfather’s death, however, felt more about his grandfather than them, an opportunity my friend was grateful to have. Expressing feelings of grief is certainly necessary, normal, and can still be a part of celebrating Día de Los Muertos. However, the holiday also provides an alternate expression of grief that many missing their deceased loved ones long for as well. It provides a recurring safe space for positive remembrance and reverence that is not focused on the griever, but rather the people that the griever misses.

Día De Los Muertos Celebrated Locally

Cathy and Amy at the 2011 Dia de Los Muertos parade

You can see how Día de Los Muertos is celebrated in modern Mexico in this video.

You can also see how the holiday is celebrated here in Central Texas. In this video from PBS, a woman who enjoys gardening creates a Día de Los Muertos altar and invites friends to add to it and celebrate those it honors with her.

In this video, a woman is having her face made up in the stylized calavera manner at a boutique in Austin. Making up one’s face or wearing a mask of this style is a popular way to celebrate the holiday in many places.

If you want to join in the holiday yourself, here is a website listing all of the regular Día de Los Muertos celebrations in Texas.

About the Author:

Hilary Dockray came to know The Christi Center through her full-time field internship as a graduate student from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. She is expecting her MSSW in December of 2012 and hopes to work in nonprofit administration and management. She is an advocate for the understanding of grief and the support of those who grieve in both her personal and professional lives. Her favorite hobby is writing, so she is delighted to be a guest blogger for The Christi Center.

Here are some of the links I used in my research, and which you can use to learn even more about the origins, history, traditions, and icons of Día de Los Muertos:

General resources on the holiday:




Calaveras Literarias:


La Catrina:





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