Understanding the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)


One of the best-known and wildly-popular Hispanic holidays is Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  A mixture of traditional Mesoamerican and Catholic traditions, it’s now recognized around the world, and is still celebrated within the Mexican culture.

Unlike most holidays devoted to the dead, Dia de los Muertos is not scary, spooky, or even particularly somber.  It’s based in the belief that souls of the departed can return to the living world for one day to visit their families.  So, it becomes a time for festivals, parades, rejoicing, and great food.

The Celebration

The Dia de los Muertos festival actually spans three days, beginning with All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) on October 31, followed by All Saints Day, and then climaxing with All Souls Day on November 2.  It’s generally believed that the souls of children return on Halloween, while adult spirits come for their visit on All Saints Day.

It’s traditional for families to create altars celebrating their loved ones at this time, filling them with pictures, objects of remembrance, Catholic images, and other items of importance to the departed.  While reverential, these altars still often have a sense of fun.  Gently mocking or comedic epitaphs are common, for example.

Beyond that, Dia de los Muertos is a time for huge parades, wild costumes with death-themed masks, bright colors, and a celebration of the fun of being alive.  Plus, there’s so much food!

Traditional Foods of the Dead

There’s an entire list of foods which are almost exclusively served during Dia de los Muertos festivities:

  • Sugar Skulls:  These edible works of art create wild skull-based images out of molded and pressed sugar, and are always one of the most popular items among kids and adults alike.
  • Pan de Muerto:  The “Bread of the Dead,” often decorated with bone images, is a highly sweet cake that is enjoyed by families while also placed on altars.
  • Candied Pumpkin:  More sweet stuff!  These are fresh pumpkin slices which are cooked in a dark-brown sugar called piloncillo.
  • Atole:  Like an oatmeal drink, this is a hearty corn-based gruel often topped with fruit, thought to warm spirits as they revisit the world.

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