Dia De Los Muertos: A Primer


Over the past few years, around Halloween time, you may have seen festive, brightly decorated "sugar skulls" proliferating; and it's easy to see why - they're unique, colorful and detailed.  But to appreciate these emblems, it's important to learn about the holiday with which they are associated - not Halloween itself, but rather the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). 


Dia de los Muertos is a holiday for people to celebrate and honor loved ones who have passed away. Celebrations for Dia de los Muertos take place from midnight on October 31 through November 2. 

While Dia de los Muertos coincides with the Catholic holidays All Soul's & All Saint’s Day, it's not simply a Catholic celebration: the indigenous people of Mexico have combined these significant calendar days with their own long-held beliefs and traditions, to honor their deceased loved ones. The multi-day holiday gathers of family and friends to pray for and remember loved ones who have passed away, and to support the spiritual journey of the deceased; Dia de los Muertos is a time to celebrate the dead temporarily returning to Earth, and to celebrate life. 

It is believed the origins of the modern version of Dia de los Muertos that is celebrated today in Mexico, by Mexican people living around the world, and embraced internationally by millions can be traced to indigenous observances hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago as part of an Aztec festival dedicated to the Aztec goddess, Mictecacihuatl. The holiday, and particularly the associated skull motif, has become a national symbol of Mexico. Dia de los Muertos shares some characteristics with celebrations and observances in other cultures around the world for honoring and celebrating the dead. 

Dia de los Muertos begins with the belief that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31.  The holiday has developed such that over the last century, the most common interpretation is that the spirits of deceased infants and children reunite with their families for 24 hours, on November 1. Then, on November 2, all other spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that have been prepared for them.


Toys are often brought for dead children (referred to as "the little angels" or los angelitos in Spanish), and alcohol is sometimes gifted to adults. Families will also offer other gifts, or favorite snacks or sweets of the deceased, which can be placed on their grave. Altars are sometimes set up in homes either in place or of in addition to celebrations at cemeteries, or graves themselves are intricately decorated; in each case, these offerings are meant to encourage the dead to visit.

The most common and well-known symbol of the holiday is, of course, the skull (calavera in Spanish).  So-called 'sugar skulls' came about because foods such as chocolate and sugar in the shape of a skull, decorated with colors and patterns, and sometimes the name of a recipient marked on the forehead, are often presented during the holiday. 

(not historically accurate representations of the original sugar skulls, but delicious nonetheless!)

(not historically accurate representations of the original sugar skulls, but delicious nonetheless!)

This theme is also commonly represented in the form of decorated skull masks (called calacas in Spanish). 

(Dia de los muertos symbols have become so widespread that even craft stores sell ones you can decorate yourself)

(Dia de los muertos symbols have become so widespread that even craft stores sell ones you can decorate yourself)

It's also important to remember that the traditions and annual activities celebrating Dia le los Muertos vary, depending on family traditions and sometimes changing from town to town; it was not celebrated in Northern Mexico until the 20th century. The holiday currently has great national importance; some families will prepare all year for the celebrations, and may spend several months' salary on decorations and preparations.

This year, huge parades have also taken special care to celebrate those lost in the earthquake that hit Mexico earlier this year, paying special tribute to the victims with huge Dia de los Muertos parades.


I have always found this holiday and its traditions to be poignant and powerful, and have celebrated in mixed media paintings showing vibrant calavera motifs atop watercolor images.


As this holiday becomes increasingly popular around the world, it's wonderful to join in and celebrate, and to honor your deceased loved ones and celebrate life as part of the Dia de los Muertos tradition; it's also important to always remember the meaning behind the symbols.  And now, as the clock strikes midnight, feliz Dia de los Muertos! 

                                               Lauren // Wandering Laur Fine Art