Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—is a holiday celebrated on November 1. Although celebrated throughout Latin America, Dia de los Muertos is most strongly associated with Mexico, where the tradition originated. It has its origins in Aztec traditions honoring the dead. Protestant British and Catholic Spanish explorers had wildly different approaches to the native populations they colonized. Catholic missionaries often incorporated native influences into their religious teachings, adapting Aztec traditions with All Saints Day to create Dia de los Muertos, where elements of both celebrations are retained. Spanish explorers were also more likely to marry indigenous people, creating a hybrid (mestizo) culture where such cultural adaptation is a way of life.
Dia de los Muertos celebrates death as a part of the human experience: Every living thing will eventually die. Every human being, no matter how beautiful or well-dressed, will eventually be exposed as nothing more than a skeleton and skull. The half-decorated calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls) recognize this duality.
Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. This celebration recognizes a continuum of birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones. Shells and noisemakers will wake the dead from their sleep, and keep them close during the festivities. The dead are a part of the community, but invisible to the living.
The most familiar symbol of Dia de los Muertos may be the calacas and calaveras, which appear everywhere during the holiday: in candied sweets, as parade masks, as dolls. Calacas and calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, often in fancy clothes and entertaining situations.
The dead are a part of the community, participating in the same way they did in life. Although their flesh may have disappeared, their cultural associations have not. Skeletons representing firefighters may still ride in a fire truck, for instance, or a calaca of a vaquero (cowboy) may still ride a horse.
On Dia de los Muertos, family members often clean and decorate the graves of loved ones. In addition to celebrations, the dead are honored on Dia de los Muertos with ofrendas—small, personal altars honoring one person. Ofrendas often have flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered.
Dia de los Muertos is actually Dias de los Muertos—the holiday is spread over two days. November 1 is Dia de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. Graves are decorated with white orchids and baby’s breath. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, honoring adults, whose graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds.