From colorful skeletons to celebratory altars and sugary skulls, Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) is a unique tradition that’s steeped in history while maintaining an air of celebration.
The holiday, which inspired the Disney movie “Coco” and was recognized by UNESCO, may celebrate the dead, but it isn’t sinister or scary like Halloween. Instead, it’s a joyous commemoration of lost loved ones and a way to keep their spirits alive. (In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for example, there’s a week-long public party, La Calaca, or the Skull Festival.)
“Halloween is more like horror and Day of the Dead is spiritual. It has to do with your connection with your loved ones that passed away,” Adela Marquez, a family counselor at Hollywood Forever, told Travel + Leisure. Hollywood Forever, one of the world’s most beautiful cemeteries, hosts a 40,000-person Day of the Dead celebration each year, which Marquez has been helping organize for about 20 years.
“There’s a saying that the day you forget your loved ones, that’s when they really die,” said Marquez, who is originally from Mexico herself. “You don’t want to forget, you want to remember them every year. You want your children to remember your grandfather, your great, great grandfather.”
Here are five things you should know about Día de los Muertos:
The celebration takes place over two days.
The Day of the Dead celebration takes place over two days, November 1 (All Saints' Day) and November 2, and coincides with the time of the fall maize harvest, according to National Geographic.
Marquez said people believe their relatives and loved ones can cross over and celebrate with them for 24 hours on November 2. Many people stay up all night, she said, until the window of time closes.
Day of the Dead has been celebrated for thousands of years.
The holiday originated in Mexico thousands of years ago as a way to recognize the inevitability of death and celebrate loved ones who have passed.
“It’s an ancient custom from the Aztecs. They believed that on November 2 the heavens open and the dead are able to come and visit their loved ones on Earth,” Marquez said. “It started as a spiritual ceremony for the dead.”
Day of the Dead altars are extremely important.
Marquez said that families set up an altar by their loved one’s grave or in their homes to allow the souls to cross over. Each altar includes photos of loved ones as well as an arch, which symbolizes an entrance to our world. The family puts food and water on the altars in case their deceased loved ones are hungry or thirsty, and lays down a path of marigold flowers to help the soul find its way.
“When they receive [the soul], they prepare their favorite foods and drinks,” she said. “You sit at the altar and eat, you eat with them.”
The entire 24 hours is one big celebration.
To mark the occasion on November 2, families “stay up the whole night singing … and they drink, it's a reunion,” Marquez said. People eat traditional food like pan de muerto (or bread of the dead), which is a sweet bread decorated with bones and skulls made from the dough, according to National Geographic. Sugar skulls and drinks like pulque, a sweet fermented drink made from agave sap, are also used to mark the yearly occasion.
Day of the Dead costumes are amazing.
Marquez said people paint their faces and dress as skeletons in deference to death.
“In Mexico, we respect death and we fear death, we kind of dance with death,” she said. “I guess it’s a way of dealing with it, it’s a way of dealing with our mortality because eventually we will all be that.”