Day of the Dead Origins and History

Recreation of a pre-hispanic offering for the dead
© Suzanne Barbezat

Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday that celebrates and honors deceased loved ones. In Mexico, the celebration is held from October 31 to November 2nd, coinciding with the Catholic feast days of All Saints and All Souls, but the festival's origins are rooted in a unique combination of elements drawn from indigenous beliefs and Catholic teachings. Over time it has evolved, adding some new ideas and practices, ultimately transcending its origins to evolve into the truly Mexican holiday that is celebrated today as Día de Muertos or Hanal Pixan in the Maya area.

Prehispanic Beliefs About Death

There were many different ethnic groups living in Mesoamerica in ancient times, as there still are today. The various groups had and still have different customs, but they also had many things in common. A belief in an afterlife was very widespread and dates back to over 5000 years ago. In many archaeological sites in Mexico, the ornate way in which people were buried shows evidence of the belief in the afterlife, and the fact that tombs were often constructed beneath the homes where they had lived, meant that deceased loved ones would remain close to their living family members.

The Aztecs believed that there were several planes of existence which were separate but interrelated to the one on which we dwell. They envisioned a world with 13 overworlds or layers of heavens above the earthly terrain and nine underworlds. Each of these levels had its own characteristics and particular gods who ruled it. When someone passed away, it was believed that the place their soul would go to was determined by the manner in which they died. Warriors who died in battle, women who died during childbirth, and victims of sacrifice were considered to be the most fortunate, as they would be rewarded by achieving the highest plane in the afterlife.

The Aztecs had a month-long celebration in which the ancestors were honored and offerings were left to them. This festival took place in the month of August and paid homage to the lord and lady of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli and his wife Mictlancíhuatl. Other groups had different but similar customs and beliefs.

The Catholic Influence

When the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century, they introduced the Catholic faith to the indigenous people of Mesoamerica and did their best to stamp out the native religion. They were only somewhat successful, and the Catholic teachings intermingled with the native beliefs to create new traditions. The festival related to death and celebrating the ancestors was moved to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd), and although it is considered a Catholic holiday, it retains various elements that are carried over from the pre-Hispanic celebrations.

Mocking Death

Many images that are associated with Day of the Dead appear to be mocking death. Playful skeletons, decorated skulls, and toy coffins are ubiquitous at this time of year, and in Mexican culture in general. Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) was an illustrator and engraver from Aguascalientes who satirized death by depicting clothed skeletons performing everyday activities. During the rule of president Porfirio Diaz, Posada made a social statement by poking fun at politicians and the ruling class - particularly Diaz and his wife.

He invented the character La Catrina, a well-dressed female skeleton, which has become one of the main symbols of Day of the Dead.

Day of the Dead Today

Celebrations vary from place to place. Some of the best Day of the Dead destinations include Oaxaca, Patzcuaro and Janitzio in Michoacan, and Mixquic, on the outskirts of Mexico City. Day of the Dead is a continually evolving tradition, and Mexico's proximity to the United States has enhanced the overlap that exists between Halloween and Day of the Dead. Children dress up in costumes and, in the Mexican version of trick-or-treating, go out to pedir Muertos (ask for the dead). In some locations, instead of candy, they'll be given items off the family Day of the Dead altar.

Conversely, in the United States, more people are celebrating Day of the Dead, taking the opportunity to honor and remember their deceased loved ones by creating altars and participating in other Day of the Dead festivities. Learn some of the vocabulary associated with Day of the Dead.