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The history of Day of the Dead: Merging cultures and honoring life

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What is day of the dead? (Photo: Mundo Archive
  • What is Day of the Dead?
  • Learn the origins of this Mexican holiday.
  • What do its symbols mean?

When autumn winds begin to blow, many of us think about the approach of Halloween. Yet, for millions of people, early November is a time for a deeply spiritual celebration called Day of the Dead.

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Indigenous roots: The Aztec perspective

Día de los Muertos altar, Day of the Dead
Photo: Mundo Archive

Before the arrival of Spanish colonizers, the Aztecs had long practiced a month-long celebration honoring their deceased ancestors.

During this time, families would create altars and offer food to guide the spirits of their loved ones back to the world of the living.

This tradition, deeply rooted in the indigenous culture, got a drastic makeover when the Spanish arrived.

But instead of disappearing, the essence of the tradition was preserved, transformed, and blended with Catholic beliefs.

What is Day of the Dead? The Spanish influence

symbols, Día de los muertos
Photo: Mundo Archive

Spanish colonizers brought their Catholic faith to the New World, and they were eager to convert indigenous people.

However, they soon realized that completely eradicating established practices would be difficult, if not impossible.

A form of religious and cultural syncretism began to take shape, blending indigenous traditions with Catholicism.

This fusion led to the current celebration of Day of the Dead, occurring on November 1st and 2nd to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

Elements and symbols: A vibrant display

Mexico, Day of the dead, altar, Día de los Muertos
Photo: Mundo Archive

What is Day of the Dead today? It’s a colorful and vibrant celebration, brimming with symbols that pay homage to both its indigenous and Catholic roots.

Altars are elaborately decorated with marigolds, sugar skulls, and candles, each carrying its own significance.

Marigolds are said to guide spirits with their scent, while sugar skulls represent the sweetness of life.

Candles light the path for spirits, making it easier for them to return to the world of the living.

The role of food: More than just sustenance

Día de los Muertos, food
Foto Shutterstock

Food plays a pivotal role in Day of the Dead celebrations, with traditional dishes often laid out as offerings for the departed.

Families prepare pan de muerto, a special bread adorned with bone-like decorations, and offer the favorite meals of their lost loved ones.

The belief is that the spirits consume the essence of the food, gaining the energy needed for their journey back.

The living then partake in the feast, physically consuming the food but spiritually sharing it with the dead.

What is Day of the Dead globally?

day of the dead symbols, Mexican holiday
Photo: Mundo Archive

Initially a regional festival, Day of the Dead has gained international recognition and is now celebrated in various parts of the world.

The United Nations even recognized it as an «Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity» in 2008.

Its universal themes of love, remembrance, and the celebration of life resonate deeply with people from different cultures.

Whether you’re in Mexico or elsewhere, the beauty of this holiday lies in its ability to bring people together, regardless of their background.

More than just a Mexican holiday

symbols, Mexican holiday
Photo: Mundo Archive

In today’s world, Day of the Dead serves as a reminder that death is not the end but a continuation of the journey.

It provides comfort to those grieving, assuring them that their loved ones are not forgotten but are part of a larger cosmic cycle.

The festival also encourages us to celebrate life, to cherish our time with loved ones, and to create memories that will one day be honored by future generations.

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