The Living Traditions of the Day of the Dead

facepaint (5)2Dia de los Muertos, the date of the Mexican calendar where deceased relatives lives are celebrated in a positive light, has been marked in one form or another since the Aztec civilisation. Spanish conquistadors discovered the indigenous people almost mocking death, as they had for almost 3,000 years, and yet the invaders could not suppress this tradition. The celebration of a loved one’s passing might seem morbid to some, but the Mexican holiday allows families to appreciate the individual’s life without mourning.

The Aztec equivalent of the celebration involved retaining skulls as trophies to portray the fragility of life and the importance of rebirth, through their belief that the dead would return to visit through their ritual. The goddess Mictecacihuati was believed to preside over the festivities, as she herself died at birth and became known as the ‘Lady of the Dead’. Holding the view that life was but a dream and to die is to wake, the natives were viewed by the Spaniards as barbaric and sacrilegious, believing instead that death was the end of life and not worthy of positive celebration. In an attempt to force the festival out of existence in competition against existing Christian holidays, the Spaniards pushed the celebration towards All Souls Day, November 2nd, where it remains to this day.

The methods of commemoration range from creating sugar skulls known as calaveras to dressing as skeletons, echoing the holiday’s Aztec roots. The iconic female figure of the modern holiday, Catrina, wears a skull design on her face with tagetes in her hair, known as flor de muertos, flower of the dead. Pan de muerto is baked with a bone and teardrop motif on top of the loaf as the only visible symbol of negative mourning within the holiday. Families traditionally visit their loved ones graves with a basket of offerings for the dead, including their favourite things in their living years and more often than not, a gift of alcohol. Relatives clean and decorate the graves and keep an optimistic vigil over them throughout the holiday, a costly celebration but is a price worth paying to parents who hope that their children will witness this devotion and pay the same respects to them when they pass. The celebrations are often viewed as a result of the Mexican characteristic of staring death in the face and poking fun at it, which can be seen from the humorous political and celebrity epitaphs published in newspapers around the holiday, as a means of actively counteracting the sullen depression of personal loss. The celebration is not so much the affirmation of those families have lost, but the affirmation of life and creativity.

Alongside the two days of November 1st and 2nd as recognised by the Vatican, a third unrecognised celebration day is added to commemorate lives lost through accidents or murders, who are believed to have faced a different destiny to those who passed from disease or natural death. Furthermore, while families build shrines in their houses to their loved ones, some dedicate their Day of the Dead to complete strangers, as the Mexican artist Zarco Guerrero pays homage through his family’s shrine to the Mexicans killed in automotive accidents while they are smuggled across the border into the United States.

However, as with most religious, cultural and traditional holidays, Dia de los Muertos has become commercialised in recent years, with corporations cashing in on the celebration’s influence spreading from Mexico into the USA and across the Atlantic, however Mexican celebrants have certainly not lost the meanings behind the traditions to celebrate the day of the Dead.


Brandes, Stanley, Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond (Oxford, 2006).


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