If you travel to Mexico or South America between October 31 and November 2, don’t be surprised if you see revelers made up to appear as skeletons and porcelain skulls in the streets. It’s all part of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. During this colorful otherworldly festival, families in Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil
and Bolivia gather in a public area or cemetery to honor their deceased loved ones while decked out in makeup, flowers, glitter and jewelry that are designed to be amazingly beautiful with skeletal imagery.
Here are four things you need to know about this fascinating holiday:
1. It’s NOT Celebrated like Halloween.
Contrary to the American version of Halloween, Día de los Muertos is not about haunted places, costumes, candy and kids knocking on doors. Instead, the holiday celebrates the lives of the deceased
with food, drink, parties and activities that their dead enjoyed in life. During the celebration, death is recognized as part of the natural part of the human life cycle right along with birth, growing up, adulthood and community. During Dia de los Muertos it is believed that the dead awake from their slumber to share the celebration with loved ones.
2. It’s Ancient.
The festival combines an old Aztec tradition (i.e., a festival celebrating the goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl) with the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ days of the Spanish conquistadors.3 Indigenous cultures of Mexico mocked the “Lady of the Dead,” (traditionally known as La Catrina), which many recognize today as a skeleton woman wearing a fancy hat.3 Legend has it that La Catrina was a rich but greedy and selfish woman who did nothing to help those in need. Today, during Día de los Muertos, she is mocked by revelers who dress in ornate garb with white, painted faces that look like skeletons.
3. It’s a Time to Remember Family and Friends
While Día de los Muertos is a celebration, it’s also a time to reflect on and remember family members. Many homes contain alters made to the dead where the family places candles, flowers and the
deceased’s favorite food and drinks. Families take time in front of the alter to eat, sing and tell stories about their loved ones who have passed.2
4. Flowers Make the Celebration
Among the ceramic skulls and pictures of loved ones, flowers “make” the celebration of Día de los Muertos. Travelers to these regions will notice trucks full of flowers which play a big role in parades, home alters and parade costumes. Marigolds, the Mexican flower of death, are especially present during the festivities as their scent (along with copal, made from burning tree resin) is thought to be most beloved by the spirits of the dead.
For a list of the best places to celebrate Día de los Muertos, see this article by Travel Weekly.