Death is different in Mexico. Credit the ancient Aztecs and other pre-Hispanic civilizations, where death wasn't mourned, but seen as a natural continuation of life. Thousands of years later, the beloved fall holiday known as Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead still captures this uniquely Mexican worldview, in which the dead come home once a year to visit, and the living dress up as high-class skeletons to wink in the face of death.
1. Day of the Dead Isn't 'Mexican Halloween'
Although they're celebrated at the same time of year and share an affinity for skulls and sweets, the origins of Halloween and Day of the Dead are completely different.
Halloween started as a pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain. The Celts believed that the veil between the living and dead grew thin around the fall harvest — also the Celtic New Year — allowing ghosts and ghouls to slip in. The Celts dressed up as monsters and goblins to scare off evil spirits and have a little fun in the process.
When St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, the Church incorporated some of the pagan traditions of Samhain into All Hallows' Eve, observed Oct. 31. The modern holiday of Halloween was popularized in America by Irish immigrants.
Meanwhile, a version of Day of the Dead existed in pre-Hispanic Mexico as far back as 3,000 years ago (more on that in a minute). When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they brought priests who converted the indigenous people by the sword. The old traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead proved harder to erase, so the Catholic Church folded them into the existing observances of All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls' Day (Nov. 2).
2. The Aztecs Celebrated Day of the Dead
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they found flourishing indigenous cultures, the largest at the time being the Aztecs. The Spanish reported that the Aztecs celebrated a massive festival every August dedicated to the dead.
In Aztec mythology, the underworld was watched over by Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. Her duty was to watch over the bones of past lives, which were also the source of new lives on Earth. Once a year, Mictecacihuatl would leave the underworld to check on her "living bones."
The Aztecs welcomed Mictecacihuatl and her husband Miclantecuhtl with a monthlong death festival in August filled with offerings and dance. Aztec sculptures of Mictecacihuatl and Miclantecuhtl portray them with skeleton faces and necklaces dangling with skulls and severed hands.
3. Day of the Dead is a Pagan-Christian Mashup
It's called "religious syncretism," when existing religious customs and even deities are folded into a new belief system. When the Aztecs and other indigenous Mexican groups fell to the Spanish, they were forced to destroy their temples and pagan idols and replace them with cathedrals and the Saints.
But early Spanish missionaries knew that a conquered people would have an easier time accepting a new god and new traditions if they fit into an existing religious worldview and ritual calendar. And that's exactly what happened with the Day of the Dead.
Mexican indigenous religion venerated the dead, so the Catholic Church looked for existing Christian holidays that emphasized communion between the living and those beyond. All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) is a time for Christians to remember and honor fallen saints now in heaven. And All Souls' Day (Nov. 2) marks the time to pray for the souls of departed loved ones who may be trapped in Purgatory waiting for admission to heaven.
It turned out that purging millennia of religious tradition wasn't as easy as moving the Aztec death festival from August to November. The Mexican people obeyed their Catholic conquerors, but they held tight to pre-Hispanic symbols like Mictecacihuatl and her skull necklace, which endure today as the skeleton-chic Catrina and day-glo sugar skulls.
4. It's Not a Sad or Spooky Holiday
It's hard for outsiders, particularly Americans, to wrap their heads around Day of the Dead. In Western culture, death is something to be feared and the spirits of the dead are more likely to return as creepy ghosts than friendly visitors. So, the idea of spending an entire night camped out at a loved one's grave can seem both sad and terrifying.
But Day of the Dead is neither of those things. While Mexicans absolutely mourn the loss of loved ones and miss them terribly, that's not the point of Day of the Dead. Day of the Dead is a celebration of life — both here and beyond — when the souls of the departed come home for feasting and fun.
The colorful traditions surrounding Day of the Dead serve two purposes: 1) they help us remember, respect and celebrate loved ones who have passed, and 2) they let us laugh at death while poking fun at the living.
The Mexican poet and author Octavio Paz described this uniquely Mexican attitude toward death, writing that a Mexican person "is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his steadfast love."
Even the cemetery, a place that Westerners associate with mourning and fear, is tinged with laughter, music and colorful decorations on the Day of the Dead. Death, after all, is part of the human experience. So why not make it a little more fun?
5. Ofrendas Light the Way Home
We'll get back to the cemetery in a minute, but Day of the Dead really starts in the home with the building of an ofrenda, a type of festive altar dedicated to a deceased loved one. The ofrenda can be small or large, humble or ornate, but it's sure to include a picture of the person who has passed on, plus some of their favorite foods and drinks to help them refuel after the long journey from the spirit world.
The path home is marked by flower petals scattered on and around the altar, smoky incense, candles and colorful papel picado, artfully cut pieces of crepe paper. The dominant color of ofrendas is the rich yellow of the cempasuchil flower, a Mexican variety of marigold. In the days approaching Day of the Dead, flower markets sell mounds of fragrant cempasuchil for decorating ofrendas, along with white baby's breath and purple-red cockscomb.
6. It's Less a Vigil Than a Graveside Picnic
In the parts of Mexico where Day of the Dead is still traditionally observed — those include the Lake Patzcuaro region of Michoacán and Oaxaca, among others — much of the celebration centers around the local cemetery.
In the days leading up to Nov. 1, families will clean up the gravesite of a loved one. They'll pull out weeds, put a fresh coat of paint on iron fences and wipe down headstones. In humbler cemeteries, where a grave might only be marked with a simple, wooden cross, families will bring shovels and mound up fresh soil over the grave.
Then it's time to adorn the tomb. Just like the altar at home, these graveside ofrendas include lots of cempasuchil flowers, candles, and offerings of food and drink for the famished souls of the departed.
On the night of Nov. 1, the families gather around the grave wrapped in shawls and blankets against the cold fall air. They bring food and drinks for themselves and their spirit guests. Village musicians and the occasional mariachi band take requests for the loved one's favorite tunes.
The family will stay in the cemetery all night, visiting with neighbors, telling stories and jokes, and keeping the candles lit and the plates of food full for the unseen guests of honor.
7. There are Two Kinds of Calaveras
The Spanish word for skeleton is calavera and calaveras have become closely associated with Day of the Dead imagery, costumes and festive art.
The man credited with popularizing the calavera imagery was Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, who gained fame drawing satirical cartoons of Mexico's wealthy elite and corrupt politicians, all portrayed as comical skeletons. His most enduring image is La Catrina, a stately female skeleton in a flowered hat and long dress who is at once a modern incarnation of Mictecacihuatl and a commentary on the folly of vanity.
Today you'll find ornate clay statues of colorfully painted Catrinas for sale at Day of the Dead markets alongside smaller figurines of calaveras at work and play: calavera dentists, calavera bartenders, calavera firemen, etc. And while costumes aren't a traditional part of Day of the Dead, it's pretty cool to dress up like a Catrina (or Catrin, her male equivalent) complete with artistic face paint.
But there's also a second type of Day of the Dead "calavera." When Posada was making his prints in turn-of-the-20th-century Mexico, many of his drawings adorned satirical poems called calaveras literarias ("literary" calaveras). These short, rhyming verses poked fun at all classes of Mexican society and writing original calaveras is still part of Day of the Dead festivities for children and adults.
8. Those Sugar Skulls Aren't Snacks
Sugar skulls are everywhere on the Day of the Dead. In Mexico, craft markets are filled with sugar skulls of all sizes iced with intricate fluorescent designs. You might think that since they're made of sugar they're meant to be eaten, but you'd be wrong.
Sugar skulls are technically edible — they're made with a sugar paste called alfeñique — but they're meant to be decorative, not a snack. Sugar skulls are supposed to be placed on home ofrendas or given to friends and family as gifts.
There are plenty of other edible skulls for sale at Day of the Dead markets, including chocolate skulls, lollipop candy skulls, marshmallow skulls, etc.
9. Pan de Muertos Is the Real Treat
One of the great pleasures of Day of the Dead is dipping a hunk of sugar-coated pan de muertos or "dead bread" into a steaming mug of Mexican hot chocolate.
Pan de muertos is a seasonal delicacy in Mexico only baked in late October. The bread is made with a rich, eggy dough flavored with a dash of orange blossom extract. It's shaped into a large round and topped with crossbones before being dusted with sugar and baked.
When eaten fresh, pan de muerto is moist and cakey, but even stale dead bread is good with Mexican hot chocolate, known for its tantalizing hints of cinnamon.
10. Monarch Butterflies Have a Day of the Dead Connection
Every fall, millions of monarch butterflies arrive in the pine-covered mountains of the Mexican state of Michoacán. They have flown thousands of miles from Canada to spend the winter huddled in masses in the high-altitude Mexican forest.
Monarch butterflies were making this same miraculous migration centuries ago when indigenous groups like the native Purépecha were celebrating Day of the Dead. The monarchs were believed to be the souls of the departed journeying back to the land of the living.