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    Ancient Holidays: Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos

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    Celebrating the past lives of loved ones lost for thousands of years is Day of the Dead or better known as Dia de los Muertos. Once a year, Mexico has three whole days is dedicated to honoring and paying respect to friends or family members lost. It is not a day meant for mourning but for celebration. Since this day falls very close to Halloween and its theme is death, people often have mistaken the two for each other or think they’re both the same thing.

    On the contrary, Dia de los Muertos and Halloween are two separate holidays. According to Adams from the National Geographic Society, Halloween is more about darkness and terror, whereas “Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy.” The Hispanic belief in an afterlife dates back to over five thousand years ago. It first originates to the Aztecs living in Mesoamerica back then. Barbezat from Tripsavvy writes that the Aztecs believed in several planes of existence. They also believed their world had thirteen overworlds and nine underworlds, all with their own gods.

    The Aztecs believed that when someone died, their soul goes to a place determined on how they passed away. For example, warriors, sacrifices, and women who died during childbirth were always valued the highest and seen as most fortunate. They’d be rewarded with the highest plane in the afterlife. All of these beliefs led to a month-long celebration in which the Aztecs honored their ancestors and left out offerings for them. However, Dia de los Muertos wasn’t originally created by the Aztecs to remember loved ones that passed. Diaz from StMU History Media writes “They were worshiping the queen of the underworld and protector of the dead.” She was an Aztec queen named Mictecacihuatl.

    The mythology behind this is as an infant, the queen was sacrificed to become the wife of the king of the underworld, Miclantecuhtl. Diaz continues to write that Mictecacihuatl had the job of looking after the bones of past lives, which are used to create new life in the living world. But in order for the bones to create life, Mictecacihuatl needed to steal them from Miclantecuhtl. Each year the queen would returning to the world of the living to protect the bones and make sure they were safely taken care of. Upon her return, the Aztecs celebrated her arrival with death festivals to thank her for protecting the bones.

    Around the sixteenth century, a large Catholic influence followed the Aztecs. The Spaniards had arrived in Mesoamerica and began introducing their faith to the Aztecs, trying to dismiss the native religion in the region. The Catholics succeeded in creating new beliefs and traditions within Mesoamerica. The month-long celebration changed from being celebrated in the summer to correlate with the Catholic holidays such as All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd). The beliefs and rituals behind Dia de los Muertos begin by knowing it’s a colorful festival, not a sad occasion.

    The belief is it’s the one time a year that spirits come back to the world of the living to reunite with their families. First, come the spirits of babies and children on October 31st and the adults come the next day. In preparation for this holiday, Mexicans decorate altars, also known as ofrendas, in their homes to make the spirits feel welcomed. Decorations on the altar include sugar skulls, pan de Muertos(a special bread), and cempasuchil(marigolds). It’s very important to leave offerings for the spirits. Families must lay out the food on their altar that was special to their loved ones. Herz from Inside Mexico writes that it’s believed that the aroma of the offered foods is consumed by the spirits. Another tradition is cleaning and decorating their grave.

    It is expected that the spirits return there first. In some areas of Mexico, families will spend an entire night in the cemetery celebrating and honoring the dead. The whole idea behind Dia de los Muertos reflects on how religious Spanish culture really is, most families are Catholic or Christian. It can be seen that almost all of Mexican families are raised religiously and taught about the afterlife and how important it is to stay close to God. The fact that the Aztecs celebrated the dead thousands of years ago and an entire culture still celebrates the same holiday today shows how strongly Spanish culture holds onto their beliefs. The Day of the Dead connects to two cultures, the Aztecs and the Spanish. The difference between the two is the Aztecs created this holiday and originally held the celebration during the summer and held it for a month long. The Spanish came and changed it to connect to Catholicism more.

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    Ancient Holidays: Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos. (2021, Mar 30). Retrieved from

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