Day of the Dead (in Spanish, Dia De Los Muertos) is a centuries-old holiday celebrated in Mexico – and by Mexican Americans in the United States and Canada – to remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration happens on November 2, in concert with the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).
Not to be confused with the primarily American holiday of Halloween, Day of the Dead is quite different in its origins and observed customs. The roots of the holiday are said to go back thousands of years to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. (Her modern equivalent is “Catrina.”)
The tone of the holiday is quite different from Halloween, as it is observed as a celebration of the lives of the departed. Celebrants visit cemeteries to commune with the souls of their loved ones and offer prayers. Small private altars are erected at the grave, with ofrendas (offerings) consisting of favorite foods and beverages of the departed, photos and other memorabilia. Graves are often decorated with orange Mexican marigolds, known as Flor de Muerto or “Flower of the Dead,” which are believed to attract the souls of the dead to the offerings.
Celebrants also place ofrendas in their homes in order to welcome the departed. These offerings include foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), and small sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. Many believe that the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the food, which is typically consumed by the celebrants after the festivities end. Often, small altars are also constructed in the home, where family and friends gather to offer prayers and recount favorite events and anecdotes from the departed’s life, many of which are often humorous.
The corresponding holiday of Dia De Los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) is observed on November 1 to honor the memory of infants and children.