Day of the Dead, annual celebration to honor the spirits of the dead, observed primarily in Mexico and other Latin American countries in early November. The exact dates of the celebration vary from region to region. In many communities, the Day of the Dead—known in Spanish as El Día de los Muertos—is observed on November 1 and 2 and coincides with the Christian celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. All Saints’ Day, observed on November 1, honors the Christian saints, and All Souls’ Day, observed on November 2, is a holiday of the Roman Catholic Church to commemorate the deceased so they might “rest in peace.” According to popular belief, on the Day of the Dead the spirits of the dead return to commune with the living. Families leave offerings for these spirits, attend fiestas (festivals) dressed in costumes, and clean or decorate the graves of deceased family members.
The Day of the Dead is similar in many respects to Halloween, a holiday that also commemorates the spirits of the dead. Halloween originated in Europe and is now celebrated on October 31 in the United States. Some Day of the Dead ceremonies are sanctioned and presided over by representatives of the Catholic Church. Many aspects of Day of the Dead celebrations reflect Native American traditions that predate the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 1500s. Observances vary from region to region, and often between different social groups within the same community. Some communities hold multiple Day of the Dead celebrations during the last week of October and the first week of November. In these elaborate observances, specific days are usually set aside for various classes of spirits, such as those of people who died violently or who died within the last year.
Most Day of the Dead activities take place in the home. Paths of flower petals and burning incense lead spirits to the houses of their living relatives. Many families construct elaborate ofrendas (offerings), tables heaped with gifts of food and drink for the spirits of the dead. Special loaves of bread such as pan de los muertos, or bread of the dead, are baked for the holiday and are often included in offerings to the spirits. Other food offerings are selected with the spirit of a specific individual in mind, including dishes the deceased person enjoyed in life. The ofrenda is decorated with flowers, especially an orange or yellow marigold known as cempasúchil (flower of the dead) and the mano de león (lion’s paw). Also, arches of palm leaves and banners of tissue paper cut into intricate designs frequently hang above the ofrenda table.
After the spirits have been given an opportunity to partake of the offerings, the celebrants eat the food. Leftover food is placed on the graves of dead relatives or distributed to living relatives and other members of the community. According to custom, ill fortune, such as sickness or death, may befall those who do not make offerings.
In some areas, especially in Mexico City, many celebrants construct papier-mậché skeletons and skulls. These are often arranged in tableaus that tell a story, sometimes a social or political satire. Skulls made from sugar are also common. In urban areas, ofrenda competitions and Day of the Dead dances, or discos, have become increasingly common.