Day of the Dead: Bringing Culture and Tradition to Life

Women, dressed in fancy costumes and holding candles, stand next to an ofrenda
Women, dressed in fancy costumes and holding candles, stand next to an ofrenda
Photo credit: Ernesto Rodríguez

Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a multi-day celebration of all five senses. Contrary to the somber tone that its name implies, the holiday is treasured in Mexican culture as an opportunity to honor the dead while celebrating the joy of life.

Born in Mexico several thousand years ago, the event has since spread throughout Latin America and Hispanic communities all around the world. According to Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua tradition, it is considered disrespectful to mourn the dead as if they are truly gone. Instead, Día de los Muertos centers around the belief that deceased loved ones return to Earth during the festivities, which are conducted in their honor.

Family members of the deceased celebrate the “Day of the Dead” with vibrant costumes, delicious feasts, colorful parades, and lively parties. “Ofrendas,” which are altars built in cemeteries and homes, hold the bevy of food, beverages, flowers, and offerings to the dead to coax them back to the land of the living. Tradition holds that the deceased are hungry and thirsty after their long journey from the afterlife and need the sustenance provided by their living family members. Candles, marigold flowers, papel picado (pierced paper), sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), agave nectar, and porridge are all important staples of most Día de los Muertos feasts.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially recognized Día de los Muertos by adding it to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. It is a day steeped in ancient Mexican culture that has carried on for centuries as a time of comfort, fellowship, and remembrance for revelers all over the world. The celebration kicks off every year on October 31st and ends on November 2nd.