It’s probably safe to assume that, at some point in your life, you’ve learned a little bit about Día de los Muertos. We know it takes place in Spanish-speaking countries in early November, and that skulls are involved. From there, the details might get a little shaky if you’ve never celebrated it before. It’s just the Latin American version of Halloween, right?
Well, actually, it’s not. For starters, the holiday is also celebrated in Spain. And it has nothing to do with Halloween. In fact, it was originally celebrated in the summer. These misconceptions are pretty common in English-speaking countries, so you can expand your cultural awareness with these 11 Día de los Muertos facts.
1. Its Ancient Roots Date Back To The Aztecs
Starting around 3,000 years ago, the Aztecs in Mexico and Central America held a month-long ritual each summer to commemorate their deceased loved ones. This involved holding human skulls in their hands. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they brought Catholicism and the Catholic holidays All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (on November 1 and 2, respectively). The resulting cultural composite led to the modern-day Día de Los Muertos and its early November date.
2. It’s A Celebration Of Life, Not Death
The purpose of Día de los Muertos is to remember and celebrate the lives of the deceased, rather than to mourn their deaths. Ancient indigenous groups like the Aztecs believed death brought new life, and that it was an important part of life’s cyclical journey. Present-day celebrations include music, dancing and other expressions of liveliness.
3. There Are Parties In The Graveyard
In order to celebrate the deceased, families gather near the graves of their loved ones and decorate them. The families often play music and enjoy food and drinks right there in the cemetery, so they are as close as possible to those who passed away.
4. The Ubiquitous Skeleton Woman Is Making A Statement
You see her everywhere — the skeleton with a large, fancy hat and an upscale dress. Her name is La Calavera Catrina (or just La Catrina, for short), and she’s based on artist Jose Guadalupe Posada’s etching in 1910. She’s far more than just a friendly-looking skeleton. La Catrina was created as a satire of upper-class Mexicans who chose to emulate European culture rather than their own. But in death, we are all equal, regardless of our social class.
5. The Dead Come To Join The Party
Some who celebrate the holiday believe that souls of the deceased return for Día de los Muertos to celebrate with their families. This is the time of the year when the dead pay a visit, and so it only makes sense the spirits are actually present at the festivities. Typically, November 1 is for celebrating children who died, and November 2 is when adults are commemorated.
6. Butterflies Are Important Symbols
So the souls are returning to visit their loved ones, but how do they get back to the land of the living? Perhaps they fly. Some people believe the Monarch butterflies, which migrate to Mexico in the fall, are the souls of the deceased heading back for Día de los Muertos.
7. And So Are Hairless Dogs
When it’s time to return to heaven, the mode of transportation is very different than on the way in. Legend has it that the Xoloitzcuintli, or Mexican Hairless Dogs, lead the souls back to heaven after the holiday concludes. The dogs are sometimes incorporated into decorations in honor of their important role.
8. The Altars Created For The Dead Are Personal And Elemental
One of the most elaborate aspects of Día de los Muertos are the beautifully decorated altars, called ofrendas (“offerings”), which are created by families and friends of the deceased. The altars are personalized to include photos of the dead, trinkets that belonged to them and sometimes their favorite food. Every altar also has objects representing the four elements: earth (flowers or food), wind (traditional paper banners), fire (candles) and water. Another common (and iconic) item often used to decorate the altars are sugar skulls.
9. Laughter Plays A Key Role
Remembering the dead doesn’t have to be sad. During Día de los Muertos, participants focus on the positive and try to incorporate laughter into their celebrations. Relatives and friends will often tell jokes, with the knowledge that their deceased loved ones are laughing along with them.
10. Disney Tried To Trademark The Holiday
In 2013, the Walt Disney Company filed an application to trademark the phrase Día de los Muertos in anticipation of an upcoming Pixar film about the holiday (which was later renamed Coco). Needless to say, there was considerable backlash and accusations of commercializing and exploiting Latin American culture. Facing mounting pressure, Disney eventually withdrew the application.
11. UNESCO Gave It A Pretty Cool Shout-Out
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized Día de los Muertos in 2008 by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The list is a way of safeguarding cultural diversity and creative expression around the world.