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Day of the Dead: What Is the Meaning & History of 'Dia de los Muertos'?

Day of the Dead: What Is the Meaning & History of 'Dia de los Muertos'?

Today Google celebrates the end of the Day of the Dead 2017, also known as Dia de los Muertos. The Mexican holiday began on Halloween. Despite its name, the Day of the Dead is actually 3 days long regardless of where it begins and ends, it is not "Mexican Halloween." The holiday existed prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century but took place during August instead of autumn. Gradually the native celebration was absorbed into the Catholic calendar holidays of All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day, all which also fall around Halloween.

Halloween itself has Gaelic origins and is now considered the "Celtic New Year." The original Halloween was called Samhain. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, according to the calendar of the Celtic League.

In its original celebration, Samhain was viewed as a “liminal time,” where the boundary between the physical world and the “Otherworld” could be more easily crossed. Ancient Celts believed that the supernatural “Aos Si,” comparable to fairies or elves, could more easily enter the mortal realm during Samhain. It was also believed that the souls of the dead revisited their old homes during Samhain. To appease both the Aos Si and the dead, feasts were held. An ocean away, the same beliefs arose independently for the original Aztec celebrators of the Day of the Dead.

Learn about the history and origins of the Day of the Dead here:

The Original Holiday Celebrated the Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuatl


In its original form, the Day of the Dead celebrates the Aztec goddess, Mictecacihuatl. Mictecacihuatl means "Lady of the Dead" and she was worshipped as the queen of Mictlan, the underworld of Aztec mythology. The original holiday celebrating her lasted a month, writes Encyclopaedia Britannica. Mictecacihuatl's job as the queen was to watch over the bones of the dead. However, her origin story is quite gruesome: in Aztec lore, she was born human and sacrificed as an infant. She is often represented as a woman with her mouth open and her skin removed.

According to USA Today affiliate AZ Central, the celebration of Mictecacihuatl first started at least 3,000 years ago. However, Mictecacihuatl's name has changed in modern times with the Spanish colonization of Mexico. She is now known as La Calavera Catrina.

The Day of the Dead Now Has Lots of Christian Influences

La Calavera Catrina (Wikimedia)

La Calavera Catrina translates to "Dapper Skeleton" or "Elegant Skull" and she is the modern icon of the Day of the Dead. She was created in the early 20th century by Mexican cartoon illustrator and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada. Posada was married to Frida Kahlo.

Just like the Hispanicization of Mictecacihuatl, the Day of the Dead has also been influenced by European culture and Christianity. Notwithstanding the celebration being moved from August to autumn, Frances Ann Day summarizes the distinct way the three days are now celebrated in her book, Latina and Latino Voices in Literature:

On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children's altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit. November 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.

The Day of the Dead in the United States

Residents with painted faces and holding candles participate in El Paseo de Las Almas, The Walk of Souls, during a Day of the Dead festival in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico on October 28, 2016. (ALEJANDRO MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Most Americans are now familiar with the iconic imagery and style of the Day of the Dead. It is also celebrated in Mexican communities throughout the U.S., including in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, but also in places like Missoula, Montana, reports Montana Voice.

It is commonly used to bring awareness to the Hispanic community in the U.S. with Aztec dancers and regional Mexican music.

Happy Day of the Dead!