Día de Muertos

Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November to honour deceased loved ones. Día de Muertos is celebrated particularly in Central and Southern Mexico and is a festival of celebration, not sadness, used to express love and respect for deceased friends and family members. The two days of celebration symbolise two slightly different things: the 1st of November celebrates el Día de los Inocentes or Angelitos, when it is believed that the spirits of deceased children are reunited with their families for 24 hours. The 2nd of November is the most widely-known day of the holiday and celebrates el Día de los Difuntos or Muertos, which honours deceased adults.


El Día de Muertos is, at its heart, an indigenous celebration, with traditions stretching back thousands of years to Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Aztecs and Toltecs, who considered mourning the dead as disrespectful. These pre-Hispanic cultures believed that death was a natural part of the life-cycle and that the dead were still members of the community, temporarily returning to Earth on el Día de Muertos. Originally, the Day of the Dead was celebrated at the beginning of August, the ninth month in the Aztec solar calendar, and stretched throughout the whole month. The dates of the festival were moved to the beginning of November by the Spanish in the 15th century in an attempt to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism to fall in line with the Catholic Día de los Santos (All Saints’ Day, 1st November) and Día de los Fieles Difuntos (All Souls Day, 2nd November).

The festivities of the Aztec festival were presided over by the god Mictecacihuatl, known as ‘la Dama de la muerte’ (Lady of death). Today, the icon that symbolises el Día de Muertos is la Calavera Catrina.

Catrina La Calavera Garbancera

La Calavera Catrina (‘Elegant Skull’) was adapted by Diego Rivera from a 1913 satirical engraving created by José Guadalupe Posada entitled ‘Calavera Garbancera’, garbancera being a nickname for indigenous people who attempted to imitate European dress and behaviour. Rivera stripped La Catrina of this political meaning when he included her in his mural ‘Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central’ (‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon along Central Alameda’), portraying her with the elegance of a high society woman and giving her the name ‘Catrina’, slang for ‘the rich’. La Catrina is the most well-known symbol of el Día de Muertos, with many people dressing up as her to celebrate the holiday.

Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central

In 2008 el Día de Muertos was registered on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


Pan de Muerto

The traditional belief in Mexico is that spirits work up an appetite travelling from the spirit world to the realm of the living, for this reason, families often place their dead loved one’s favourite meal on the altar as well as other traditional offerings, such as pan de muerto.

Pan de muerto is traditionally a soft sweet bread, sometimes flavoured with aniseed and usually topped with sugar. The bread is decorated with dough bones and skulls, arranged in a circle to symbolize the circle of life, and a teardrop to represent the goddess Chīmalmā’s tears for the living.

Papel Picado

Papel picado is not exclusive to el Día de Muertos, but does play an important role in the holiday. Meaning ‘perforated paper’, papel picado is a form of Mexican folk art and is achieved by punching holes into coloured tissue paper using a small mallet and chisels. Layers of tissue paper are stacked and as many as 50 sheets can be created in one go.

On el Día de Muertos papel picados are cut with patterns of skulls and strung around the altars created to the dead, as well as being used to create banners which are hung throughout the streets and displayed in peoples' homes.


Ofrendas are altars built both in peoples homes and in cemeteries, meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. Ofrendas commonly take the format of three tiers, the topmost holds photos of the deceased, as well as images of saints and statuettes of the Virgin Mary. The second tier holds offerings such as food, drink and toys. The final tier is decorated with candles and throughout the altar are marigolds and calaveras (skulls made from sugar and clay).

The decorations of an ofrenda typically represent the four elements, for example, the candles symbolize fire and the papel picados represent air.

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