Did you see lots of colorful skull cookies and people running around in skeleton makeup yesterday? That’s because it was the Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead, also known as “Dia de los Muertos,” falls on November 2. Given its frank name, many people might assume that it’s a Latin American version of Halloween but there’s far more to it than that. The holiday is actually closer to Memorial Day, although it’s far less somber.
In some Spanish-speaking cultures, death is not always thought of as a morbid topic. As a result, on November 2nd, many people in Mexico and parts of Central and South America (and beyond) honor their friends and family who have passed on with a celebration. The tradition dates back to before the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century when it was observed during the summer months. Historians theorize that it could be rooted in a much older tradition that involved honoring Mictecacihuatl, the queen who rules over the underworld in Aztec mythology.
Day of the Dead was eventually moved to November 2nd to coincide with All Soul’s Day, the Catholic holiday. In contemporary times, it’s celebrated in different ways in various countries. In Spain, for example, people visit the deceased in local cemeteries after attending parades and festivals. In other regions, the holiday is a three-day event that begins on October 31st when youngsters make small altars honoring the spirits of deceased children. November 1st celebrates adult spirits, and the following day families visit local cemeteries to decorate the graves of their loved ones with marigolds. They also celebrate with skeleton decorations, candy skulls, skull cookies, incense, and special food offerings for the dead. In the Guatemalan city of Santiago Sacatepéquez, it’s common for celebrants to fly gigantic kites made out of rice, bamboo, and tapestries.
While it can be hard to find Day of the Dead events in the U.S., it’s becoming more popular. Since 1990, Tucson, Arizona, has hosted an All Souls Procession that features marchers in elaborate costumes and makeup. Many carry signs and prayers that are later burned. Similar celebrations can be found in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even Missoula, Montana. This year’s celebration is set to include a Sugar Skull Workshop, a parade, and a special “Festival of the Dead” beer.