Día De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead in English, though it’s referred to simply as Día de Metros in Mexico) is one of the world’s most misunderstood holidays. Because it’s celebrated within range of Halloween, and features an assortment of macabre imagery and costumes, some people assume it’s just “Mexican Halloween,” while attempts to co-opt the holiday have been repeated through history. (Disney attempted to trademark the term to market a film in 2013.)
Originally a harvest celebration for the Aztecs, what would become the Day of the Dead in Mexico was originally celebrated around the end of summer (some believe August), structured as it was around the farming season. This is much like Halloween, which is derived from pagan holidays that also celebrated the change of the seasons. Spanish conquistadors bringing Catholic influence to Latin America combined the holiday with the Catholic traditions of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.
“All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are related, but they are two separate celebrations,” Reverend Richard Donohoe, the vicar of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Birmingham, explained to Catholic Online. “On All Saints’ Day there’s a call to live as saints, to remind us how we’re supposed to live. On All Souls’ Day, we’re talking about all souls and asking God’s mercy for them.”
Day of the Dead follows a similar two-day structure (and occupies the same two days of the calendar year, Nov. 1 and 2nd), but the focus is different. On the first day, families remember children who have died, and on the second, the adults. The central belief is that the spirits of loved ones are allowed to join the living on those days and commune with them, and the celebration is geared towards that idea: People leave toys and calaveras (the iconic skull — made from sugar — that inspires the makeup and look of the holiday) for children, and for adults they leave food, favorite possessions and alcohol at elaborate homemade altars (called ofrendas).
Celebrations can also include live music, dancing and parades from residences to graveyards, where family members will gather around their loved ones’ graves. Typically, Mexico has never had a parade to celebrate Día De Los Muertos, though this year they held one, inspired by, of all things, the recent James Bond movie Spectre. Día De Los Muertos was also not a national holiday in Mexico for some time, and actually wasn’t celebrated by certain parts of the country early on — they preferred to hold onto the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.
One of the holiday’s most iconic symbols is actually a political cartoon: In the early 20th century, famous Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada sketched out a female skeleton dressed in an elaborate hat. Posada’s intent was to skewer Mexican natives he felt were rushing to adopt European modes and customs at the expense of their own culture, but she became a larger symbol of the holiday thanks to Diego Rivera, who christened the character La Calaveras Catrina in his 1948 work Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda), pictured above. To this day, she — and her attendant male counterparts — have become an essential representation of the holiday. Catrina also has her ties in the Aztec death goddess Mictecacihuatl, or the Lady of the Dead, who was keeper of the bones in the underworld and officiant of the Aztec harvest celebrations that would evolve into Día De Los Muertos.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that, despite all the morbid imagery, Día De Los Muertos is about celebrating life, not mourning death. It’s a joyous holiday, one that winks at death instead of crying over it.