The Real(ish) History of Day of the Dead

The Real(ish) History of Day of the Dead
Photo: BestStockFoto, Shutterstock

Day of the Dead is having a cultural moment. The autumnal holiday marked by skeleton imagery, altars to dead ancestors, and great parties is becoming more and more widely celebrated, but where did it come from and what does it all mean? Read on, future-calacas.

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is an annual holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd where families invite the spirits of dead friends and relatives to a party. It’s thought that the border between the World of the Living and the Land of Dead is open on these days, so your beloved Uncle Tony can hang out and enjoy the food, drink, music, and revelry he liked so much before he shuffled off his mortal coil. (But he’ll probably be invisible.)

The idea is to throw a party that the dead would want to attend, so it’s not about mourning, but about telling stories and jokes, dancing, and eating great food to celebrate and remember the ones we love instead of lamenting their absence.

Day of the Dead skeletons and ghosts might look like the spooky ghosts of Halloween, but the two holidays are not related, even in spirit. Day of the Dead isn’t about creepy, haunting specters and the macabre. It’s more life-(and death) affirming than that.

Where did Day of the Dead come from?

The ancient origins of this holiday are a bit murky. Some maintain that Day of the Dead practices are directly descended from the Aztec empire in Central Mexico. The Aztecs held at least six different celebrations throughout the year that were similar to Day of the Dead, including a celebration to honour Mixcóatl, the god of war, that was held between October 20 and November 8 and included placing altars with food near the graves of warriors to aid their journey to the hereafter.

When the Spanish conquered and colonised the Aztecs in the 16th century, the dates of these celebrations were moved to the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls Day on November 1st and 2nd, but they stayed largely the same in practice.

That’s one version. Some think that Day of the Dead, as it’s celebrated now, has more in common with Medieval European festivals and celebrations than pre-Columbian American ones. Specifically, All Souls Day, meant to remember the dead, and the danse macabre, in which dancing skeletons in paintings, woodcuts, and performances were meant to remind us that both beggars and kings will meet the same fate when death brings justice to us all.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, a collision of cultures where indigenous, religious, artistic, and political influences were smashed together to create a uniquely awesome new thing.

How is Day of the Dead celebrated?

While Day of the Dead activities and traditions vary from place to place — they fly giant kites in Guatemala, and some families in Bolivia decorate the actual skulls of loved ones with garlands of flowers — there are some widely practised hallmarks of the holiday, particularly in Mexico and the United States.

Altars: Usually set up at home, these sometimes elaborate shrines can include banners, “papel picado” (tissue paper cut into decorative designs), candles, favourite foods, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), photos, and ofrendas, offerings specific to the one being celebrated, like a child’s favourite toy. They’re usually heavy on flowers, particularly orange or yellow marigolds, whose sweet scent is said to help guide souls to their homes.

Skulls and skeletons: Skulls and skeletons are all over Day of the Dead celebrations, from the small “sugar skulls” decorated with colourful icing and placed on altars, to the elaborate skulls-and-flowers some people paint on their faces. These are colourful skulls with wide-smiles, not creepy, Halloween-y skulls.

Much of the modern “look” of Day of the Dead can be traced to a single drawing. Cartoonist and social activist José Guadalupe Posada’s “La Calavera Catrina” was published in a broadside in 1911, a year before the start of the Mexican Revolution. Catrina is a high society lady-skeleton rocking a French style, flowered hat, and a wide grin. The title sentence in the La Catrina leaflet sums up the drawing’s intention: “Those garbanceras who today are coated with makeup will end up as deformed skulls.”

Cemetery visits: Day of the Dead celebrations for many families include visiting the graves of loved ones, cleaning them, decorating them with flowers, and leaving offerings. In some places, bands perform at cemeteries, and relatives often picnic, packing the favourite food of the deceased.

Parties: Most dead relatives would probably avoid hanging out at a dour, depressing party, so music, drinking, and eating is a big part of the day. Meals are often the favourite food of the deceased, and tequila, mezcal, and Atole — a non-boozy drink made of corn, cinnamon, and vanilla — are often drunk. But feel free to drink whatever you want. It’s what Aunt Rosy would have wanted.

Politics: Politics have been part of Day of the Dead celebration since at least the publishing of “La Catrina.” In the 1970s, the Chicano Movement used the holiday to call out discrimination and celebrate Mexican heritage, and in the 1980s, public altars were set up to commemorate AIDS victims. In 2019, a huge altar was set up in honour of victims of the El Paso shooting.

Public celebrations: While traditionally a more private holiday, in recent years, Day of the Dead parades, festivals, and street parties have become popular, particularly in Mexico and the Western US.

In a testament to the ever-evolving nature of the holiday, one of the largest festivals was inspired by a James Bond movie. In 2015’s Spectre, Bond visits an (entirely fictional) Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City. The following year, the city held an actual festival for those expecting it, and it’s been a tradition since.

Is celebrating Day of the Dead cultural appropriation if you’re not Hispanic?

It depends on who you ask. “Cultural appropriation” (of a holiday, or anything meaningful, really) is a complicated thing, but I think most Mexican people wouldn’t object to a sincere, respectful interest in Day of the Dead, just as Irish people like me don’t object to you eating soda bread and listening to The Pogues on Saint Paddy’s day (here’s the real history of St. Patrick’s Day, if you’re interested). It’s probably a moot point, anyway: It’s clearly happening, whether people like it or not.

Why is Day of the Dead growing in popularity?

Holidays rise and fall in prominence and cultural popularity constantly, often for hard-to-define reasons, but Day of the Dead’s rise in the United States coincides with more Hispanic people immigrating to the country, just as Saint Patrick’s day became nearly-universal with the influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century.

Pop culture influences from movies like the aforementioned Spectre and Pixar’s CoCo fuelled interest in the holiday, as did old fashioned capitalism, creating a critical mass of holiday popularity that has been growing year by year.

Ultimately, though, I think Día de Muertos “catching on” is about more than marketing and demographics. I think many of us, no matter our ethnicity, need a new way to think about death. The Victorian death-traditions that inform “mainstream” US culture — when we acknowledge death at all, it’s through black-clothes and mourning — just aren’t enough. Celebrating the dead joyfully, while also celebrating life (even while we acknowledge our own mortality), is a much better excuse for a holiday than a groundhog coming out of his hole or something.

Also: Skull and skeleton imagery is self-evidently, perpetually cool.

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