Day of the Dead Festival

An image of a Day of the Dead party with people dressed in costumes - Day of the Dead Festival -Dia de los Muertos

The Day of the Dead Festival includes colorful costumes, but it is completely different than Halloween. Photo by DEBBIE OLSEN

What You Need to Know About Dia de los Muertos

The Day of the Dead Festival is celebrated right after Halloween, but even though it includes playful costumes and decorations, it is not a Hispanic version of Halloween. Dia de los Muertos takes place over two days (Nov 1 and 2) as a colorful way for families to come together and celebrate the memory of deceased loved ones. On November 1, families honor deceased children and infants with Dia de los Inocentes and those of the Catholic faith also honor Catholic Saints on All Saints’ Day. November 2 is for celebrating older deceased relatives and is also All Souls’ Day, a day dedicated to prayers for the dead. Both days are national holidays in Mexico and some other Latin American countries. If you want to celebrate this unique holiday, there are a few things you need to know.

Related: If you’re thinking of visiting Mexico for the Day of the Dead, check out this blog post on our five favorite family-friendly all-inclusive resorts.

An image of two skeletons in a Day of the Dead Festival display - Dia de los Muertos

The Day of the Dead Festival is so culturally significant that it has been recognized by UNESCO. Photo by DEBBIE OLSEN

UNESCO Recognized Celebration

At its core, Día de los Muertos is an indigenous celebration. The Day of the Dead Festival was recognized by UNESCO on its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It originated several thousand years ago in what is now Mexico with the Aztec, Toltec and Nohua people. Pre-Hispanic people believed the dead were still members of the community who were kept alive by being remembered and honored. They believed that during the Day of the Dead festival, the dead return to earth to visit family members. Though it originated in Mexico, the holiday is celebrated in other Latin American countries and is becoming popular in North America as well.

An image of La Crucecita Catholic Church of Huatulco - Day of the Dead festival - Dia de los Muertos

As Catholicism became the predominant religion in Mexico, the celebration of the dead was moved to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. Photo by Debbie Olsen

Timing of the Holiday

In Aztec culture, the celebration of the dead took place in August and lasted for a month. When the Catholic religion became the primary faith in Hispanic America, the holiday was changed to the Day of the Dead Festival and timed to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day.

An image of an altar at the Day of the Dead Festival in Ecuador -Dia de los Muertos

Elaborate altars are part of the Day of the Dead Festival. Photo by DEBBIE OLSEN

Altars or Ofrendas

In the days leading up to the Day of the Dead Festival, families build elaborate altars or ofrendas in their homes. They place pictures of their loved ones on the altar and decorate it with flowers, gifts, candles, foods and drinks that the person enjoyed when they were alive. Altars often include sunflowers and marigolds, which are thought to attract the spirits of the departed. Visiting the cemetery and decorating the graves of loved ones is also an important part of this celebration.

An image of colorful painted clay skulls - Day of the Dead Festival - Dia de los Muertos

Skulls are a very important symbol of the Day of the Dead Festival. Photo by DEBBIE OLSEN

The Significance of Sugar Skulls

The production of sugar skulls or calavera dates back to the 17th century. Skulls are the most iconic symbols of the Day of the Dead Festival. They come in different sizes and are made of sugar and decorated with colorful icing. They may also be made of clay and decorated with colorful paints. Some even have hats, feathers, glitter or other objects attached to them. They are used to decorate altars and they typically bear the name of the departed soul on the forehead. There is a great deal of symbolism in the decorations. Flowers on the skulls symbolize life, while cobweb patterns symbolize death.

A image of a statue of La Calavera Catrina in Ecuador - Dia de los Muertos

La Calavera Catrina is the principle symbol of the Day of the Dead Festival. Photo by DEBBIE OLSEN

The Significance of Skeletons

In Aztec times, the people paid tribute to Catrina, the Goddess of Death, who was portrayed as a skeleton. In modern times, you will often see La Calavera Catrina pictured as a female skeleton in fancy clothes. This Day of the Dead Festival symbol is based on a 1910 cartoon image meant to poke fun at the upper class. It reminded them that we all meet the same fate in the end.

An image of a server with a skull painted on his face - Day of the Dead Festival -Dia de los Muertos

Painting your face with a skull is an important part of a Day of the Dead costume. Photo by DEBBIE OLSEN

How to Dress for the Day of the Dead Festival

People dress up for this holiday – ladies in flowing dresses and men in suits or nice clothes. They paint skulls on their faces or wear skeleton masks and skeleton costumes. They may even wear the clothes of departed relatives. The most important thing to remember is this is NOT Halloween. It would be disrespectful to wear a regular Halloween costume to a Day of the Dead Festival or celebration. For more information on how to dress, check out this fun blog post.
An image of two people standing behind a table filled with bread babies in Quito, Ecuador - Day of the Dead Festival -Dia de los Muertos

Each country has their own unique ways to celebrate the Day of the Dead Festival. In Ecuador, the celebration includes consuming bread babies that represent the deceased. Bread babies are served with a thick hot purple beverage called Colada morada. Photo by DEBBIE OLSEN

An Interesting Perspective on Life and Death

It is interesting to compare how the dead are portrayed at Halloween and at the Day of the Dead Festival. Spirits are a scary thing at Halloween, but at the Day of the Dead Festival they are welcomed, celebrated and remembered. I’m no expert, but the second approach seems to promote a healthier attitude about death and dying.

An image of Ecuadorian bread babies -guaguas de pan - Day of the Dead Festival - Dia de los Muertos

A closer look at the bread babies (guaguas de pan) that are an important part of the Ecuadorian celebration of the Day of the Dead Festival. Photo by DEBBIE OLSEN

Watch a Kids’ Movie to Learn More

To learn more about the Day of the Dead Festival and enjoy a touching story, check out the Academy Award-winning animated feature film Coco.

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