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Day of the Dead,
a Mexican Tradition


More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.  It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.  A ritual known today as Dํa de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan.  In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual.

But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die.  To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.  Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month.  Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as "Lady of the Dead," was believed to have died at birth.


The Day of the Dead is a time for the dead to return home and visit loved ones, feast on their favorite foods and listen to their favorite music.

In the homes, family members honor their deceased with ofrendas or offerings, which may consist of skulls, photographs, bread, other foods, flowers, toys, and other symbolic offerings.

Sugar skulls made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend.  The Aztecs kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.

Photos of saints of particular importance to the family sit on the altar along with photos of the deceased relatives the family is waiting for.

Candles are always present on the altars.  Families light candles on the altars and on the gravesite of the deceased.

Bread of the Dead represent the souls of the dead.  The essence or soul of the bread is consumed by the dead when they visit their loved ones.  Most of the bread loaves are shaped as ovals (said to be the shape of one’s soul), though each loaf may vary with different ingredients and decorations.  In some parts of Mexico, the bread may be shaped as humans or animals.

Flowers, which symbolize the brief life of man, are used as an offering on the altars. Yellow marigolds, known as "the flower of the dead," and other fragrant flowers are used to communicate to the spirits the richness of the offering. Sometimes paths of marigold petals are created by families to aid the souls in finding their way home.

In Mexico, death is something to be celebrated.  It is not a morbid occasion, but rather a festive time.