Dia de los Muertos: History and Meaning of the Day of the Dead
The history and meaning of El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) go back to before the Spanish Conquest. The festival, celebrated across Latin America on 2nd November, includes a mixture of indigenous Latin American and Christian beliefs. It has some similarities to Halloween, but is a unique festival with its own history and traditions, and it is celebrated in different ways in different countries.
History and Meaning of Dia de los Muertos
Before the Spanish and Portuguese colonised large parts of the Americas, bringing the Catholic church in their wake, the Indigenous peoples of Latin America followed their own native religions. These religions had beliefs in the importance of maintaining a connection with dead ancestors, hence you can still see today many pre-Columban tombs across the region, where living relatives of the dead person would have left food and other 'offerings' to keep the dead spirit content.
People at this time believed a discontented spirit would return to haunt the family and would bring bad luck. This 'ancestor worship' as it is sometimes called was very important to indigenous civilizations like the Incas and Aztecs, as well as finding some expression also in the shamanistic belief-systems of the rainforest peoples. There are still many popular ghost stories centred on the night before the day of the dead - much like the Halloween tradition of Europe and North America.
The Catholic church did its best to establish Catholic doctrine across the continent. While they were successful in converting the indigenous population to Christian observances such as attending mass, they did not entirely eradicate native superstitions and beliefs. Many Latin American people today, especially indigenous peoples, believe that a Shaman can help to cure their illnesses. Others such as the Mayan peoples of Guatemala, leave traditional spirit offerings at Catholic shrines, such as a bird feather or a lucky coin.
The history and meaning of the Dia de los Muertos combines both Catholic and indigenous traditions. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they found an Aztec tradition thousands of years old, involving the use of skulls to honour the dead. In Mexico skulls are still an important part of celebrations, but today they make 'sugar skulls' and wear skull masks rather than using the real thing! Other Latin American countries don't use skulls to mark the Dia de los Muertos, but instead build altars at the graves of loved ones where they leave offerings.
As in many Catholic countries across the world, the Day of the Dead is a day to visit the graves of dead family members and leave candles or flowers. However, in keeping with the indigenous tradition of maintaining a connection with between living and dead family members, the Dia de los Muertos is not a sombre occasion but more of a joyous family get-together. Indigenous people in particular celebrate the day by holding something of a festival in the local graveyard, complete with music, chatter and ice-cream. Outside the walls, there will often be stalls selling food and drink, with something of a street party going on.
How the Day of the Dead Is Celebrated in Different Parts of Latin America
- Mexico has some of the most well-known and flamboyant 'Dia de los Muertos traditions'. These include wearing skull masks or painting the face to look like a skull. People also make 'sugar skulls'. The video above gives a great insight into Mexican celebrations at this time of year.
- Brazil celebrates finados on 2nd November. Families get together to pray for loved ones who have died. Like other Latin American countries, the day is a positive expression of love for those who have passed on, and people visit the graves of relatives with flowers and candles.
- Peru / Ecuador: In the Andean countries, the Dia de los Muertos is especially important to the Quichua people, the descendants of the Incas. People visit the graves of relatives and create altars of ofrendas (offerings) at the graves, such as flowers and candles. There are parties in the street, sometimes in the cemetery itself! Traditional food is cuy (roast guinea pig), flat cakes shaped like gingerbread men and many drink chicha, the local homemade beer.
- In Haiti people also flock to cemeteries, but as well as leaving candles and flowers for the dead they also pray to Baron Samedi, the guardian spirit of the dead to help them have luck in future. In Haiti, the day of the dead is really two days, as the celebrations last longer than other Latin American countries. The African heritage of Haiti gives their Day of the Dead celebrations a unique voodoo influence: during the festivities, people dance all night at peristyles (voodoo temples).
Ideas for Celebrating the Day of the Dead
- Make an altar to commemorate a loved one. You don't need to go to their graveside but can do this in your home. Set aside a small niche in a quiet place and add a photo of the person, some candles and flowers, and maybe a special object that reminds you of them.
- Visit the graveside of any relatives who have died. Bring fresh flowers and take some time to tidy up the grave, as a mark of affection and respect for the person who has passed on. Take some time to remember all the good times you had together in a spirit of celebration and gratitude.
- Make skull masks at home or in the classroom. This is a chance to explain to children about the different festivals that are celebrated around the world, and to compare the similarities between Dia de los Muertos and Halloween. Here is a link to a print and cut skull mask. You can colour it in as brightly as you like!
- Make your own sugar skulls. Check out the recipe in this article. It also has good ideas for Day of the Dead altars.
- Try some day of the dead face-painting. The video below will show you how to face-paint a dia de los muertos skull, step-by-step. Or read this article for more information on day of the dead face-painting: Meaning of Dia de los Muertos face painting.
How to Do Sugar Skull Face-Painting
© 2011 Marie McKeown