What Really Happens on Day of the Dead?

Written by Mona Hadi Naeem
6 · 20 · 17
What Really Happens on Day of the Dead? - A Brief History

You must have seen the classic paintings of sugar skulls, or heard about the famous Day of the Dead, but do you know what this celebratory day actually represents? One thing you should know is that the Day of the Dead isn’t the Mexican version of celebrating Halloween! Somewhat related, both annual events differ distinctively in tone and traditions.

Halloween is a dark night that marks the celebration of mischief and terror. Whereas Day of the Dead festivities unfolds over two days in a burst of life-affirming joy, and colors. Sure, the theme revolves around death, but the point is to show respect and love for deceased members of a family.

In cities and towns all over Mexico, locals put on funky costumes and makeup, host parties, parades, dance, sing, and make special offerings for the loved ones lost. Each ritual that takes place on this day comes with a symbolic meaning.

Once you understand this festive day, the more you will learn to appreciate it. Read on to know more about Mexico’s most awaited, colorful annual celebration.

A Brief History

Several thousand years ago, Day of the Dead originated with the Toltec, Aztec, and Nahua people. They believed mourning for the dead is a disrespectful practice. In that era, the pre-Hispanic cultures believed that death is a natural phase in life. And the community or family members still live on in spirit, memory and temporarily return to earth on Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

They had the belief that the gates of heaven open at midnight on 31 October and all the spirits of deceased loved ones come down to reunite with their families through November 1. On November 2, the spirits come down to enjoy the festivities that are set for them.

Origins of the Sugar Skull Concept

The concept of sugar skulls came by to the new world in the 17th century by Italian missionaries. The first time their mention comes up in Mexican traditions is when the Catholic Church made use of sugar art at Easter time to adorn their side altars.

It’s nothing new that Mexico is a land abundant in sugar production. During that time, the Church couldn’t afford fancy decorations and made use of sugar art for all their religious celebrations. They created figures of sheep, angels, and sugar skulls.

Sugar skulls are highlights on Day of the Dead celebrations because they represent departed souls. Members write the names of their loved, departed ones on the forehead or brilliantly designed sugar skulls and place them on gravestones to honor their return on Day of the Dead. These also reflect the folk art style of happy smiles, glittery adornments, and colorful icing.

Day of the Dead Today

Today, Day of the Dead takes place on November 1 and 2 (All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in Catholic calendar).  It’s more of a mash-up day celebrating Christian feasts and pre-Hispanic religious rites.

Day of Dead celebrations includes reading humorous poems in memory of loved ones. People wear colorful funky costumes and makeup. Prepare special meals in honor of loved ones, setting up candles and flowers in cemeteries. They generally celebrate a happy day to remember dear ones.

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Mona Hadi Naeem