El Día de los Muertos began as a pre-Columbian celebration and
was greatly influenced by the Spanish.
It is a ritual honoring the dead and has been practiced for nearly
3,000 years by pre-Hispanic groups such as the ancient Maya,
Aztec, and Toltec.
These groups occupied Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.
When the Spaniards arrived, they tried to convert the Aztecs to
Catholicism, which meant they had to destroy this ritual, but the
Aztecs refused to let this sacred ritual die.
In pre-Hispanic times, el Día de los Muertos was celebrated in
August. When the Spanish could not destroy the holiday, they
moved it to November 1st (All Saints Day) and November 2nd (All
Souls Day) to make the ritual more Christian.
Today it is celebrated more in smaller towns than in the cities.
This tradition is slowly fading. (Do you think the same thing is
happening with holidays and traditions in the U.S.?)
Families go to the cemetery and decorate
the graves with flowers and altares.
They build ofrendas in the homes with gifts
for the deceased.
Skulls symbolize death and rebirth.
The Aztecs and Mesoamerican civilizations kept skulls as
trophies and displayed them during rituals.
The skulls were also used to honor the dead.
The skulls are typically grinning because they are laughing
They can be made from paper, wood, paper mache, tin, or
These are toy figurines for children.
They are used to introduce the concept of death to
children so that they are not afraid of it.
Pan de Muertos
This bread represents the soul of the departed.
Sometimes it is in the shape of a skull and can be
decorated with frosting or seeds. In Oaxaca the seeds
The flowers must be specific colors, orange and
yellow, and are considered the flowers of the dead.
The sweet smell and petals, which are used to mark a
clear path, lure the souls back to homes and altars.
The orange marigold was the flower that the Aztecs
used to remember their dead. Its color represents the
tones of the earth.
Common colors for candles are purple (representing pain),
white (for hope), and pink (meaning celebration).
They are usually placed in the four cardinal points, making
The light of the candle is used to illuminate the way for
the dead as they return.
Each candle represents a departed soul.
Originating in pre-Hispanic times, the incense is used to
Copal is a special and expensive incense that can be found
The whiter the incense, the better it is considered because
it lasts longer.
Food/Fruit and candy
The altar may be decorated with special foods, candy, or beverages that
the people enjoyed while they were alive.
Chocolate may be added, especially in Oaxaca, famous for the mole
sauce made with chocolate.
You know that the dead have come back to visit an altar because sodas
go flat, bread comes hard, and fruits get soft.
Glass of Water
A glass of water is set out to refresh the tired soul.
By putting on a mask, a person can become another being, either alive or
The mask is a ceremonial object used to influence supernatural powers.
Many indigenous people still depend on masks believing they are needed
to make the rituals or dance performances effective.
Masks can be made from wood, tin, cloth, leather, clay, feathers, shells,
or paper mache.
Some masks date back to 1000 BC.
Papel Picado: This is tissue paper (or plastic
today) with cut out holes that create
pictures or words. They are similar to paper
snowflakes although the pictures are skulls or
other appropriate pictures.
José Guadalupe Posada was a printmaker
born in Aguascaliente, Mexico in 1852.
He produced a popular representation of the
calavera (skull) depicting dead people in
everyday activities, from street cleaners to
He also made political statements, showing
that even the rich and powerful will die.
This Dance of the Old Men comes from
It is performed by young men dressed up as
Supposedly the dance was dedicated to
Huehueteotl, the god of fire. This god was
represented as very old and bent over.
Some say it was a dance performed as a
ritual honoring the sun.
Dancers usually compete in towns of
Michoacán on the Day of the Dead.