Dia de Muertos grave candles Mexico

In Honour of the Dead: A Brief History of Mexico’s Dia de Muertos

In Travel by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

While in essence, not a “spooky” holiday at all, Dia de Muertos, Mexico’s national celebration of the dead, is often conceived as such in the English-speaking world. In light of that fact, as well the time of year in which it falls, we thought October would be the perfect month to share some brief insights into one of Mexico’s, and the world’s, most iconic festivals. We hope you enjoy!

Ancient History

Dia de Muertos skulls mexico

Rituals commemorating the deaths of ancestors are not unique to Mexico. Many cultures and religions around the world have their own equivalent traditions and beliefs. But while the holiday may have found ripe ground in the Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day, Mexico’s Dia de Muertos has roots that extend far beyond the arrival of Cortés and the Catholic Church.

Indeed, the tradition of rituals celebrating the dead existed in various forms among the cultures and civilizations of Mesoamerica for possibly as long as 3000 years before the arrival of Columbus. While just one of these civilizations, the Aztecs believed in several separate, but interrelated, planes of existence. In their world, there existed 13 overworlds and nine underworlds. Each was ruled by its own set of gods and had its own characteristics. The nature of how a person died determined to which of these levels the person’s soul was sent.

dia de muertos aztec temple

The Aztec custom of ritual human sacrifice is well known; but it is interesting to note that their beliefs held that the souls of the victims of sacrifice, as well as warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth, would be rewarded by ascending to the highest plane of existence in the afterlife. The Aztec festival honouring the ancestors and leaving offerings for them lasted an entire month. It took place in the ninth month of the Aztec Calendar; roughly around the beginning of August, and paid tribute to Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancíhuatl: the lord and lady of the underworld. Other Mesoamerican groups held similar, but different, beliefs.


dia de muertos montezuma spaniards conquest aztecs mexico

After the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 and the subsequent conquest of the Aztec empire, Catholicism was introduced and the Church began to suppress indigenous beliefs and to impose its own doctrine. However, this met with only limited success. As in many other parts of the world, Christianity in New Spain blended with pre-existing customs to create new traditions.

The Mesoamerican festival commemorating the ancestors was moved to November 1st and 2nd, in that way coinciding with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. While doing this may have enabled the Catholic Church to put a Christian stamp on the practice, many pre-Hispanic beliefs were carried over and persisted.

dia de muertos mexico church

After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico remained a confessional state; and the first constitution in fact prohibited all religions other than Roman Catholicism. However, the enactment of the 1857 liberal constitution made Mexico a secular state with no official religion. While Mexican society remained generally religious and traditional, liberalism did have some influence; and the emergence of some of the most iconic characters and images of Dia de Muertos occurred at this time. Poetic Calaveras are one example of this. As a sort of satire, they poke fun at still-breathing politicians and citizens holding positions of power. These are written as if the subject were dead, and serve a reminder that death is the great equalizer.

Another prominent example are the famous illustrations of José Guadalupe Posada. Calaveras, or decorative representations of human skulls, have their roots in the pre-Hispanic era. But it is Posada’s satirical illustrations, making pointed social and political critiques through the portrayal of calaveras as vain skeletons arrayed in the dress of the upper class, that really turned calaveras into the popular symbol of Dia de Muertos. Indeed, his most famous character, La Catrina, to this day remains one of the most celebrated icons of the holiday.

Historical Revisionism

Even into the 20th century, Dia de Muertos wasn’t celebrated universally throughout Mexico. The indigenous peoples in the north of the country, where Mesoamerican influence had been limited, had their own traditions, and Dia de Muertos was unknown to them. However, at the conclusion of the Revolution in 1920, Mexican identity became a big issue as Mexico’s artists and thinkers sought to rediscover what it meant to be Mexican.

In many ways, this was a good thing. The Revolution initiated a new-found appreciation for Mexico’s indigenous roots and cultural rituals. Nevertheless, in at least some instances it was the case that not all traditions were created equal. In seeking one common Mexican identity, diversity proved in some ways inconvenient. Even into the early 21st century, Dia de Muertos is celebrated in the north of the country only because the Mexican government declared it a national holiday; a unifying, national tradition.

The Modern Day

dia de muertos skeletons offrenda

Today, Dia de Muertos is one of the most celebrated holidays in Mexico. The festival was even inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity back in 2008. As a national symbol, it is taught in Mexico’s schools; and in spite of the deeply spiritual nature of the tradition, even government offices and buildings usually erect ofrendas (although these are secular and must be devoid of all religious symbols, such as the idols of saints).

dia de muertos churchyard

The ofrenda is a key component of Dia de Muertos. A ritual altar, each ofrenda contains a picture of the deceased, religious idols and symbols, yellow marigolds (the Aztec flower of the dead), the favourite food and drink of the deceased, candles, calaveras (sugar skulls) and materials with which to refresh themselves, like a washbasin and a towel. The whole set-up is designed to welcome the soul to the ofrenda and to make them feel comfortable. While this practice goes back to before the Conquest, it remains an essential part of the tradition to this day.

Around the World

dia de muertos calaveras revellers

While Dia de Muertos is most widely celebrated today in Mexico, many other nations in Central and South America have their own or adapted versions of the festival that they celebrate. Belize, Bolivia and Ecuador are just some examples. The United States as well, in communities with significant numbers of Mexican residents, festivities take place commemorating the holiday. But Dia de Muertos has spread beyond the Americas, and even in countries like Czechia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand, prominent celebrations take place. After all, you don’t need to be Mexican to honour the dead.

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