What is Day of the Dead? This is how the holiday evolved to honor ancestors, loved ones

Day of the Dead altar (Pixabay.com)

Day of the Dead is a tradition celebrated in Mexico that has recently become popular in the U.S.

However, the holiday that honors the deceased emerged centuries ago.

According to a website called Chiff.com and the book “Day of the Dead in the USA” by Regina M. Marchi, the holiday first came to be more than 3,000 years ago in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs, living in what is now central Mexico, saw death as an “integral, ever-present part of life.”

They even celebrated a festival every year dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihatl, also known as “the lady of the dead.” Legend has it that she watches over the bones of the dead and swallows the stars during the day.

After the arrival of the Spaniards, Catholicism was introduced to the Aztecs, and traditions were blended. Eventually, the Day of the Dead became a two-day holiday that coincided with the two Roman Catholic holidays, All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2).

Although the traditional Day of the Dead is normally on Nov. 2, the holiday is traditionally observed between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. Some parts of Mexico observe Halloween, but preparations get underway even earlier that Halloween is usually skipped over, especially in central parts of the country.

On Nov. 1, the day is observed to honor deceased infants and children, also known as “Dia de Los Inocentes, or “Day of the Innocents.”

In Mexico, residents visit cemeteries between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2 to clean, refurbish, and decorate grave sites with multiple elements such as the following:

Marigolds (Cempasuchil) - said to guide spirits back with their intense color and smell.

A field of Marigolds (Pixabay.com)

Skulls (Calaveras) - You may find sugar skulls at bakeries or grocery stores. They are normally decorated with colorful paint and glitter

Sugar Skulls displayed at a bakery. (Pixabay.com)

“La Catrina y el Catrin”: The largest symbol of Day of the Dead. It emerged during the 19th century by cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada as a way to protest the Mexicans’ desire to “look more European.”

"Catrinas" displayed during a Day of the Dead festival (Pixabay.com)

“Papel Picado”: This is supposed to resemble the wind element, allowing the souls to travel through the holes.

TAXCO, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30: Pecked paper flags are hung over the colonial plaza during the Day of the Dead celebrations on October 30, 2021 in Taxco de Alarcón, Mexico. Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), a religious holiday combining the death veneration rituals of Pre-Hispanic cultures with the Catholic practice, is widely celebrated throughout all of Mexico. Based on the belief that the souls of the departed may come back to this world on that day, people gather to pray, eat, drink or play music, to remember friends or family members who have died and to support their souls on the spiritual journey. (Photo by Jan Sochor/Getty Images) (2021 Jan Sochor)

Other elements, such as candles, a glass of water, and plates of food are also laid out on the ofrenda, but that is discussed in a different article soon (stay tuned to Click2Houston.com for that!).

To learn more and to fully immerse yourself into the Day of the Dead traditions, the Disney Pixar movie “Coco” is a great start. The movie touched on several elements and talks about a boy who is willing to unlock his family’s past.


To learn more about Day of the Dead, and the traditions that come by:

DayOfTheDead.holiday, created by professional writers based in Mexico who experience the holiday firsthand.

“Coco,” available for streaming on Disney+

“Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon,” a book by Regina M. Marchi

“The Day of the Dead:” When Two Worlds Meet in Oaxaca,” a book by Shawn D. Haley

About the Author:

A graduate of the University of Houston-Downtown, Ana moved to H-Town from sunny southern California in 2015. In 2020, she joined the KPRC 2 digital team as an intern. Ana is a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, a catmom of 3, and an aquarium enthusiast. In her spare time, she's an avid video gamer and loves to travel.