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Editors: Robert H. Griffin and Ann H. Shurgin
Date: 2000
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 2,947 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1190L

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Page 218


Name of Holiday: El Día de los Muertos; Day iof the Dead

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One of the most popular holidays in Mexico is El Día de Los Muertos (pronounced el DEE-a day los MWAIR-tose), or the Day of the Dead. It is a three-day celebration that takes place on October 31, November 1 (All Saints' Day), and November 2 (All Souls' Day). The Day of the Dead is a time for celebrating death and for honoring the dead. During this period, the spirits of all those who have died are believed to return to their earthly homes, where they are made welcome with food, flowers, and gifts.

From noon on October 31 until noon on November 1, the spirits of infants and young children who have died—called difuntos chiquitos (pronounced dee-FOON-tose chee-KEY-tose)—are said to return. This day is often referred to as Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) or Día de los Niños, meaning Day of the Children.

The spirits of adults who have died are believed to return from noon on November 1 until the evening of November 2. This day is often called Día de los Difuntos, or Day of the Faithful Dead. The night of November 1, when the living keep watch and pray at the graves of their deceased family members, is called Noche de los Muertos, or Night of the Dead.


The Day of the Dead is an ancient holiday in Mexico. Its origins can be traced back to the Aztec Indians, ancestors of many modern-day Mexicans, who ruled central Mexico from the 1300s to 1520. During a month-long harvest celebration held at the end of summer, the Aztecs honored the dead. The festivities were presided over by their god of death, Mictlantecuhtli (pronounced meek-tlan-teh-KOOH-tlee). As part of the celebrations, many prisoners taken in war were sacrificed to the blood-thirsty Aztec sun god and god of war, Huitzilopochtli (pronounced weet-zeel-oh-POKE-tlee). The skulls of the dead were arranged on racks in the temples.

In 1521, the Aztecs were conquered by Spain. As the Spanish began to colonize Mexico, Spanish missionaries introduced the region to Roman Catholicism. Over time, the Aztec beliefs about the honor of death and the land of the dead combined with the Christian practice of remembering the saints on All Saints' Day (November 1) and the dead on All Souls' Day (November 2).

Folklore, Legends, Stories

Some native peoples of Mexico and Latin America believe they continue to have a relationship with people they are close to, who have died. For them, the line between the earthly world and the spirit world is blurred, and they view death as an Page 219  |  Top of Article integral part of life. This makes for an attitude toward death that is very different from that found in other cultures. Much of Latin American literature includes these themes of death and the afterlife.

An example is the book One Hundred Years of Solitude, written in 1967 by the famous modern-day Latin American writer Gabriel García Márquez (1928–). In the story, several characters continue to act in the world of the living after they have died and left their physical bodies.

Readings and performances

During Day of the Dead festivals, many towns sponsor readings and performances of works that deal with death or visits by spirits. Sometimes there are contests with prizes for the best skit. The skits are simple dramatizations of a story or joke about tricking or being tricked by death. One of the most popular plays presented throughout Mexico during El Día de Los Muertos is Don Juan Tenorio, written in 1844 by Spanish poet José Zorrilla y Moral (1817–1893).

Don Juan Tenorio: Don Juan has been a legendary hero in folklore since the 1600s. Stories about him began in Spain, and several well-known playwrights wrote versions of the Don Juan legend. The great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) wrote the opera Don Giovanni about Don Juan in 1787, and composer Richard Strauss (1864–1914) wrote his symphonic poem Don Juan in 1889.

Don Juan is a hero who is both comical and tragic. He chases many women but can never find the perfect one, and his search always destroys him. In the original Spanish version of the play, Don Juan wins the love of the daughter of the commander of Seville (a city in Spain) and then kills her father in a duel because the father disapproves of their love. Don Juan later invites a statue of the commander to a feast as a joke, but the statue comes to life and drags Don Juan down to hell.

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Spirits That Fly Home

The Aztecs believed that when certain people died, their spirits flew to a special world as birds and butterflies. These included persons sacrificed to the gods, women who died in childbirth, and warriors. Because of this belief, Aztecs carved many butterfly images on their monuments. For hundreds of years, people in Mexico have thought that the monarch butterflies, which return to central Mexico each year in October from their summer homes in the United States and Canada, carry the returning spirits of the dead.

The play Don Juan Tenorio was first performed on the Day of the Dead in 1864. Since then, it has become a Mexican tradition to see the play during Day of the Dead festivities, which is not difficult because performances take place all over Mexico. In Zorrilla's version of the story, Don Juan is not taken to hell. His soul is saved by the love of a young woman, Doña Ines, who has died. Her spirit comes back to rescue Don Juan as he confesses his sins and asks for mercy in a cemetery, with skeletons and ghosts trying to grab him and take him to hell.

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On the lighter side

Not all literary works associated with the Day of the Dead are dark and foreboding. Many have been created to help people face a subject that is otherwise frightening and sad. This humorous poem that was popular in the early 1900s in Mexico shows the lighter side of El Día de Los Muertos:

This happy skull
today invites all mortals
to come on a visit to the infernal regions.

There'll be special trains
for your enjoyment on this trip
and there's no need to dress up for it.

Customs, Traditions, Ceremonies

As the time for the spirits of the dead to return approaches, festival preparations increase. People in rural areas go into towns carrying bundles of marigolds and other flowers that will be used to decorate graves and family altars. The windows of bakeries and other shops fill up with breads in the shape of skulls and skeletons. People are busy buying spices and colorful chilies and other ingredients for making the deceased's favorite foods and beverages. They also purchase candles, incense burners, and the latest Halloween masks.

Decorating the graves

Family members of the deceased make an annual pilgrimage to cemeteries before the Day of the Dead to clean and repair tombstones, crosses, and crypts; pull up weeds; and decorate the graves with colored paper streamers, flowers, candles, and other beautiful ornaments. They also paint the grave markers and crypts in bright pinks, yellows, and blues.

Preparing the ofrendas

Day of the Dead ceremonies vary according to region, but in many homes they begin with a candlelight vigil. An elaborate altar is prepared to welcome the spirits of the dead. The altar is decorated with photographs of the departed family members and with ofrendas (pronounced off-FREN-das), or offerings. These offerings often include objects made from sugar, such as small animals, miniature plates of food, small coffins with pop-up skeletons, and skulls. They might also include toys and candy for deceased children, cigarettes for those who smoked in life, new clothes, beads, and incense.

Many candles are lit, and a path of "flowers of the dead" (yellow marigolds) is strewn from outside the home to the altar to help the dead find their way. Often a bowl of clean water and a towel are provided so that the spirits can refresh themselves after their journey.

Mexicans believe that the dead warm their cold hands over the candle flames, and the burning incense keeps away evil spirits and blesses the food on the altar. The spirits of the dead eat only the "essence," or aroma, of the food. The actual food is eaten by the living after the spirits have gone back to their graves, on November 3.

On the evening of October 31, friends and neighbors visit homes where the family has lost a child in the past year. They take special toys for the child's spirit to play with and sweet treats for the angelito (soul of the dead child). Visitors come the following day to honor adults who have Page 221  |  Top of Article
Crucifixes, candles, flowers, food, and other offerings decorate this family altar for the Day of the Dead, when the spirits of all those who have died are believed to return to their earthly homes. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue). Crucifixes, candles, flowers, food, and other offerings decorate this family altar for the Day of the Dead, when the spirits of all those who have died are believed to return to their earthly homes. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue). died during the year. If a person died by accident or by violent or criminal means, Day of the Dead offerings are placed outside the home to keep unpardoned spirits from entering.

Keeping watch for the spirits

On the night of November 1, when the spirits of adults who have died are said to return to the land of the living, families go to cemeteries to await the arrival of the Page 222  |  Top of Article
A musician sings songs at the graves of Montalvo family members on November 1, 1999, in Mexico City, Mexico. On the night of November 1, many families go to cemeteries to await the arrival of the spirits of their loved ones. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos. A musician sings songs at the graves of Montalvo family members on November 1, 1999, in Mexico City, Mexico. On the night of November 1, many families go to cemeteries to await the arrival of the spirits of their loved ones. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos. spirits of their loved ones. There they set up food and other items from their home altars, burn candles, pray, weep, and keep watch through the night as the dead return.

This occasion, however, is not solemn for everyone. Food and drink is usually available, and outside the cemeteries children play, men visit, and teens listen to music. Many people leave the cemeteries at midnight, when church bells toll to call the spirits back to the land of the dead. Some stay until dawn, when a priest offers prayers for the souls of the dead, ending the all-night watch.

Northern customs not always welcome

Although Halloween and the Day of the Dead evolved separately, they are close cousins, sharing some of the same symbols and falling at the same time of year. In recent years, North American and British Halloween customs have filtered into the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. Part of the reason for this is the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has increased trade among these countries.

Many Mexican children can now buy Halloween trick-or-treat costumes, Page 223  |  Top of Article plastic jack-o'-lanterns, witches' hats, and rubber masks. They have also taken up the Halloween trick-or-treating custom. As they pass through the streets before and during Day of the Dead, they shout "Calaveras!" ("Skulls!") instead of "trick or treat!" People often give them money instead of candy; families sometimes use the money to offset the cost of food and decorations purchased for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

The same trend is moving southward into the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, where the traditional Catholic holidays All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are now being celebrated with "Witches' Night" or Halloween activities like trick-or-treating. Stores have begun to decorate for Halloween, with jack-o'-lanterns and black cats appearing next to skulls and skeletons in window displays. Costume parties are also held.

Such Halloween celebrations are growing every year, even though the Catholic Church frowns on them. Many adults do not like it that Halloween is competing with Day of the Dead among young people, so they are increasing activities and displays in public places to promote the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead customs.

Clothing, Costumes

Dressing in costumes, or mumming, plays a significant part in Mexico's Day of the Dead festivities. On the nights of October 31 and November 1, male mummers called comparsas (pronounced kome-PAR-sus) parade through town and walk from house to house performing comic skits about politicians or other personalities. They are rewarded with money and drinks. There are also contests for the best calavera (skull) costumes.

The mummers are followed by crowds of onlookers, who cheer and applaud their lighthearted skits. Children wearing Halloween costumes and masks and carrying jack-o'-lanterns also join the fun and make a little mischief. Some even invent stories about creatures from beyond the grave to tell to people in the crowd. For their efforts, the children collect money and treats.

Foods, Recipes

The Day of the Dead is an occasion for preparing lots of food in Mexico. In town, the bakeries fill their windows with pastries made in the shapes of death: skulls, coffins, little human figures, skeletons, and bones. Painted loaves of bread and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) are also sold. Pan de muerto is made in small round loaves and decorated with pieces of dough in the form of tears or bones.

When visiting cemeteries, families often take a picnic basket containing pan de muerto along with other colorful offerings such as chocolate and yellow marigolds. The Day of the Dead is not only an occasion to make offerings to the spirits, it is also a time for feasting. The delicious dishes once favored by the dead are shared with friends and neighbors after the spirits have partaken of the food's "essence."

Arts, Crafts, Games

The symbol most associated with El Día de Los Muertos is the skeleton. Shops everywhere in Mexico display skeletons in Page 224  |  Top of Article all shapes and sizes. There are dancing skeletons with springs that make arms, legs, and skulls bounce up and down; skeletons dressed in every kind of clothing and representing probably every occupation, such as bony farmers and schoolteachers, secretaries and musicians; and skeletons acting out scenes from everyday life. These hand-made Day of the Dead figurines are called calacas (pronounced kah-LOCK-uhs).

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Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)

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1/2 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup lukewarm water
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
6 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons aniseed
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon orange extract

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  1. Combine 1/2 cup of the flour with the yeast and the lukewarm water. Set aside until it doubles in volume.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl place the remaining flour, making a well in the center. Pour the eggs, sugar, salt, aniseed, and nutmeg in the well.
  3. Beat ingredients together thoroughly, then add the yeast mixture and combine. Knead dough on a lightly floured board until smooth and elastic, about 5 to 10 minutes.
  4. Lightly grease a bowl and place dough in it. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in warm, draft-free area about 2 hours or until doubled in size.
  5. Punch the dough down and shape into round loaves with "crossbones" placed for decoration around the top. To make crossbones, roll an egg-size piece of dough between the palms of your hands and form a rope about 8 inches long. Cut the rope into 2 equal pieces and place them in the form of an X on top of the loaves. Let these loaves rise for 1 hour.
  6. Bake loaves in a preheated 350 degree oven for 40 minutes. Remove from oven.
  7. To make glaze, mix 2/3 cup sugar, 1/2 cup orange juice, and 2 tablespoons grated orange peel in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Apply glaze to the loaves of pan de muerto with a pastry brush and sprinkle with sugar if desired.

Decorating the sun, moon, and stars

A special trellis called an arco is prepared by the men and young boys of Janitzio Island in northwestern Mexico, which is said to hold the most exotic and beautiful Page 225  |  Top of Article Day of the Dead ceremony. Tourists come from many countries to view the celebrations, especially the candlelight vigil at the island's cemetery.

The arco is made from wooden sticks. It is first covered with yellow marigolds, the traditional flowers of the dead, by using fishing line to tie them to the sticks. Then fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas are tied on, followed by shaped loaves of pan de muerto, sugar skulls, and lots of other candies in the shape of animals, angels, brides and grooms, and even Coca-Cola bottles. Dog-shaped candies are especially popular because dogs are good companions and make excellent guides for the dead. The arco represents the heavens and planets, sun, moon, and stars. It also represents the resting place of the dead and the gifts of life.

The arcos are carried to the cemetery along with the many other gifts for the dead: food, flowers, candles, and incense. They are set up at the center of each grave site and glow in candlelight throughout the night. Women and children sit all night, giving warmth and companionship to the dead. The men linger on the outskirts of the graveyard, sipping tequila or other beverages and singing alabanzas, or hymns to the dead.

When the dawn comes up over Lake Patzcuaro (pronounced potz-KWAH-row), the women open their baskets laden with food, offer them to heaven, to the souls of the dead, and then to each other. Well-fed and happy, the celebrants leave the cemetery at daybreak.

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Sugar Skulls

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2 cups powdered (confectioner's) sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg white food coloring and small paintbrush

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  1. Stir together the egg white, corn syrup, and vanilla in a bowl and then slowly add the sugar, while continuing to stir. Mix well.
  2. Sprinkle cornstarch onto your work surface to keep the sugar mixture from sticking as you form it into a ball.
  3. Make skulls or other shapes from small pieces of the sugar ball, using cornstarch to keep the pieces from sticking to your hands or the work surface.
  4. When the skulls are dry, use a paint-brush to paint them with food coloring.
  5. You may make the sugar ball ahead of time and save it by wrapping it tightly in plastic and keeping it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it.

Artful tissue banners

In the village of San Salvador Huixcolotla (pronounced WEES-koh-loht-luh), Page 226  |  Top of Article artisans are famous for their carefully cut tissue banners, which are displayed to welcome the spirits of the dead. Designs are cut into as many as fifty sheets of tissue paper at a time, using more than fifty different fierritos (tiny chisels), each making its own distinct cut.

Traditional patterns for people living in the countryside are angels, crosses, and birds, but in Mexico City, the most popular are skeletons engaged in various activities. Colored tissue banners are displayed on October 31 and November 1 for the return of the children who have died. On the following day, black and white banners are displayed for the return of the spirits of deceased adults.

For More Information

Beimler, Rosalind Rosoff. The Days of the Dead (Los Días de Los Muertos). San Francisco: Collins, 1991.

Carmichael, Elizabeth, and Chloë Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Sayer, Chloë. The Mexican Day of the Dead. Boston: Shambhala, 1990.

Web sites

"Celebration on Sacred Soil." [Online] (accessed on February 9, 2000).

"Los Dias de los Muertos: Celebrating the Mexican Holiday The Days of the Dead." [Online] (accessed on February 9, 2000).

Palfrey, Dale Hoyt. "The Day of the Dead: Mexico Honors Those Gone But Not Forgotten." Mexico Connect, 1995. [Online] (accessed on February 9, 2000).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3426100045