Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—is a holiday celebrated on November 1. Although marked throughout Latin America, Día de los Muertos is most strongly associated with Mexico, where the tradition originated.

Día de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, imposed on the region by Spanish conquistadores. (Día de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar.)

Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Día de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Día de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Día de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.

The most familiar symbol of Día de los Muertos may be the calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), which appear everywhere during the holiday: in candied sweets, as parade masks, as dolls. Calacas and calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, often in fancy clothes and entertaining situations.

Use the questions in the following tab (Questions) to inspire discussion about Día de los Muertos, Latin America, colonialism, and culture.

Want to learn a little more about Día de los Muertos? Read all about it at Nat Geo Kids!

  1. Día de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America, including South America (Brazilians call the festival Finados) and the Caribbean. In the United States and Canada, the tradition exists only in areas with a large Latin American population, such as Los Angeles, California, or Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Día de los Muertos predates the independence of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. Why do you think this is not a widely celebrated American or Canadian holiday?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary! Consider the region's history:
      •    Día de los Muertos has its origins in Aztec traditions honoring the dead. The Aztec Empire's influence extended throughout present-day Mexico and Central America, while few Native Americans of the present-day U.S. shared Aztec traditions. They would be unlikely to adopt Dia de los Muertos rituals.
      •    Latin America was largely colonized by Catholics, while northern North America was largely colonized by Protestants. Though both Christian, these traditions have different religious calendars, and honor saints and holy days in different ways. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are more important in the Catholic calendar than the Protestant calendar.
      •    Latin America was largely colonized by Spain and Portugal, while the U.S. and Canada were colonized mostly by the British and French. National traditions influence religious celebrations. Even though both Spain and France were Catholic nations, for instance, Spanish citizens celebrated All Saints Day with family reunions, feasts, and festivals. Few French citizens marked the day at all.
      •    Protestant British and Catholic Spanish explorers had wildly different approaches to the native populations they colonized. Catholic missionaries often incorporated native influences into their religious teachings. They adapted Aztec traditions with All Saints Day to create Día de los Muertos, where elements of both celebrations are retained. Spanish explorers were also more likely to marry indigenous people, creating a hybrid (mestizo) culture where such cultural adaptation is a way of life.

  2. In some of these photos, masks and other decorations are only half-decorated with calacas and calaveras. Why?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary! Consider the philosophy of the festival:
      •    Día de los Muertos celebrates death as a part of the human experience: Every living thing will eventually die. Every human being, no matter how beautiful or well-dressed, will eventually be exposed as nothing more than a skeleton and skull. The half-decorated calacas and calaveras recognize this duality.
      •    The dead are a part of the community, participating in the same way they did in life. Although their flesh may have disappeared, their cultural associations have not. Skeletons representing firefighters may still ride in a fire truck, for instance,  or a calaca of a vaquero (cowboy) may still ride a horse.

  3. In many parts of Mexico, participants in Día de los Muertos festivities wear shells or other noisemakers on their clothing and jewelry. Why?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary! Consider the culture of the festival:
      •    The dead are a part of the community, but invisible to the living. Shells and noisemakers will wake the dead from their sleep, and keep them close during the festivities.
      •    Many of the dead were musicians or enjoyed music and dancing.
      •    Día de los Muertos is a celebration, and music is an important part of the joyous atmosphere.

  • Family members often clean and decorate the graves of loved ones on Día de los Muertos.
  • In addition to celebrations, the dead are honored on Día de los Muertos with ofrendas—small, personal altars honoring one person. Ofrendas often have flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered.
  • Día de los Muertos is actually Días de los Muertos—the holiday is spread over two days. November 1 is Día de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. Graves are decorated with white orchids and baby's breath. November 2 is Día de los Muertos, honoring adults, whose graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds.
Aztec
Noun

people and culture native to Mexico and Central America.

Catholicism
Noun

type of Christian religion loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and the leader of that church, the Pope.

conquistador
Noun

Spanish explorer or conqueror of Latin America in the 16th century.

Dia de los Muertos
Noun

(Day of the Dead) holiday honoring deceased family and friends, celebrated on November 1 and November 2 in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

holiday
Noun

period of celebration or honor.

Adjective

characteristic to or of a specific place.

Latin America
Noun

South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

originate
Verb

to begin or start.

ritual
Noun

series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.