The Day of the Dead

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Halloween is historically related to similar folk holidays celebrated in other countries. The Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that coincides with All Souls’ Day, blends Roman Catholic and Native American traditions about the souls of the dead. On the Day of the Dead, Mexicans decorate their homes with playful imagery of animated human skeletons, leave offerings of food for wandering spirits, and tend the graves of their deceased relatives

Day of the Dead


The Day of the Dead, All Souls Day, is an official holiday of the Catholic Calendar. All Souls Day is on November 2, following All Saints Day. The choice of November 2 is traditionally attributed to St. Odilo, the fifth abbot of Cluny (city of France famous for the Abby), because he wanted to follow the example of Cluny in offering special prayers and singing the Office of the Dead on the day following the feast of All Saints.

The day was founded to honor all the faithful departed and along with the offerings and the Office of the Dead, there are three Requiem Masses that are said by the clergy to assist the souls from Purgatory to Heaven. The modern view of death derives in part from Pre-Hispanic times. The Aztecs played a very important role in the development of this tradition. Through their history this festival emerged as one of complexity and varied interpretations.

The Aztecs had various perceptions of their world. Perceptions as simplistic as a "flat disc" surrounded by water, to a toad floating in a water-lily filled sea. In this world were contained different directions with various associated colors and symbols to each direction and level. One of the most important of these interpretations is that of the terms of a person's death.

The Aztecs believed that after a person died, his/her soul would pass through nine levels prior to their final destination, Mictlan - the place of the dead. They also believed that a person's destiny was founded at birth and that the soul of that person was dependent on the type of death rather than the type of life lead by that person. How a person died would also determine what region they would go to. Once they arrived to their specific region a person's soul would either await transformation or linger, awaiting the next destiny.

Two months of the Aztec calendar were devoted to the dead. The ninth month was dedicated to infants, and the tenth month included a great feast for dead adults.

The Spanish Conquest of 1521 brought about the fusion of Catholic attitudes and indigenous beliefs. The Day of the Dead was revealed as a result of amalgamation of Pre-Spanish Indian ritual beliefs and the imposed ritual and dogma of the Catholic church.

Spiritual Significance

The "Day of the Dead " is celebrated by many catholic countries, worldwide. This celebration originated with the Roman Catholic's, and was established in the Catholic calendar as an official holy day. The Catholic religion is based on works, and the theological idea of Purgatory has been accepted as a means of paying for sins, and buying your way into Heaven. Those believers who died in a "state of grace" were promised "heavenly rewards", after paying for their sins in purgatorial flames, while those who did not die in a "state of grace", were to spend eternity suffering in Hell. Catholics did, however, believe that they could pray their loved ones out of Purgatory. This practice gives us an idea of the spiritual significance of honoring the deceased.

November 1, is the official All Saints Day, which honors all saints who attained Beatific Vision, followed on November 2, All Soul's Day honoring the faithful departed.

Generally, people celebrating this holiday will attend mass, sometimes exhibiting the relics of saints on a catafalque, and assist the souls of their loved ones from Purgatory to Heaven. They will then proceed to the cemetery to visit, bless and decorate the graves. This tradition is universal among Catholic countries, and accepted by the church.


Many customs are associated with The Day of the Dead celebration. In the home an altar is made with an offering of food upon it. It is believed that the dead partake of the food in spirit and the living eat it later. The "ofrendas"- offerings, are beautifully arranged with flowers, marigolds (zempasuchitl) which are the traditional flower of the dead.

There is a candle placed for each dead soul, and they are adorned in some manner. Incense is also used. Mementos, photos, and other remembrances of the dead are also adorning the ofrenda.

It is also traditional in some areas to go and see the play Don Juan Tenorio. Paper mache and sugar skulls are popular, as are cardboard coffins from which a skeleton can be made to jump out. Special masks are also worn, allowing a person to achieve a facial expression for which they feel they are inadequate to achieve.


Also popular are "calaveras," like an obituary, which are used as placards. Among the prominent people in the government or society, although they are still alive, "Calaveras"--obituaries are published in verse style in the local newspapers. These verses describe the character of the individual and the deeds he/she has done for the community. They all have a jovial or satirical tone.


A popular type of decoration used to commemorate the holiday in Mexico is the tissue banner. The most famous artisans live in the "Mestizo" village of San Salvador Huixcolotla. They have been making banners here for over 90 years. At first the banners were made using scissors, but since the 1940's they have been cut with tiny chisels, "fierritos." Today skilled artisans use more than 50 different chisels to make various cuts in up to 50 sheets of tissue paper at a time.

The traditional patterns in the rural villages included angels, birds, the chalice, and crosses, but never skeletons. The popular pattern in Mexico City represents skeletons in various activities.

Traditionally, the colored banners are displayed on October 31, the day the angelitos arrive, at 3 p.m. On November 1, the angelitos depart and the animas arrive. When this occurs the colored banners are removed, and the black and white ones are displayed.

Sugar Skulls

The origin of these small figures is still a mystery. Early references have them being sold for the Day of the Dead during the mid 18th century, while some records date them as far back as the pre-Hispanic period. Some people, including Hugo Nuntini, suggest that their origin may date as far back as the merger of the pre-Hispanic Mexicans and the Spanish Catholics. At first glance, sugar skulls appear to be a survival from pre-Hispanic times, perhaps having to do with the human skulls that were kept as trophies by households, and offered to or displayed in honor of a particular god at certain festivals. The human skull as a symbol of death has a long history, and it could equally well be that the sugar skull in the "ofrenda" are of Catholic origin. (Nutini, 1988).

While others like Zolla write that in Naples during the 12th century sugar bones were an affectionate present for the Day of the Dead, which were offered to the family and friends. This very well could have led to the giving of human skulls, which in turn could have brought about the giving of sugar skulls. It could be that as it became obsolete, the less grizzly and more hygienic sugar skulls took on the commemorative function.

Whether it was during the pre-Hispanic period, or at the time of convergence of the pre-Hispanic Mexicans and the Spanish Catholics, or during the mid 18th century, exactly when, where, and why sugar skulls came about is still unclear. However, one thing is clear, and that is the fact that they have endured over the centuries, playing an important symbolic role in the Day of the Dead, and they will continue to do so.


Food is considered indispensable for the celebration. The foods offered in the memorial are different according to the wishes and social status of the deceased. Typical foods include: bread, fruits vegetables, and sweets.

Other delicacies available for the celebration are: sugar skulls (bought from the bakeries with the names of each on of the members of the family who are alive and of the deceased), candied fruit and pumpkins, tamales (corn meal with meat or raising wrapped in corn husk) and maize dough cakes, as well as enchiladas and chalupas (thicker corn tortillas with topings).

Beverages which are placed on the memorial include: water, coffee, beer, tequila, and atole (corn starch fruit flavored hot drink, a special drink made from corn meal.) Depending on how elaborate the display is, it will show the status of the deadest to the neighbors. While the tradition as stayed mostly the same throughout time, the foods have changed. Today, for instances they honor the dead with beer, enchiladas and chocolate, in ancient times it would more likely have been dogs and turkeys.

One thing has remained constant, and that is the use of bread. The custom of having a loaf of bread relates to the early custom in Spain of begging for souls. Some believe that the Spanish technology of bread-baking and the identical term used in Spain highly suggests that this tradition was Spanish in introduction. It has been written that the Zapotec Indians (State of Oaxaca) listed, bread for the dead, among their death offerings for the departed souls. It is believed that this ritual dates as early as the colonial period of Mexico

Bread of Dead. Pan de Muerto

In city of Oaxaca, Mexico the local commercial bakery brings in young men from Santo Domingo Comaltepac, "the village of the master bakers" for the occasion, solely to bake massive quantities of these loaves. The Indian Bakers of this valley's surrounding barrios produce three types of bread, each differing by the amount of egg and type of spice used.

The bread can be formed into different shapes and is commonly decorated with sugar. Bread is ALWAYS placed on the altar and not removed until the visit to the cemetery for the soul. A loaf of bread is also traditionally given to visitors who come home during the time of celebration . The must common shape sold in the Mexico City bakeries is round and decorated with a cross in the shape of bones covered with sugar.


Anocona, George. Pablo Remembers, The Fiesta of The Day of the Dead. New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard Books, 1993. Carmichael, Elizabeth and Chole Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast' The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Great Britain: British Museum Press, 1991. Downs, Cynthia and Terry Becker. Bienvenidos. Minneapolis, 1991. Toor, Frances. A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. New York, 1947.

Research work done by the Spanish 103-51 students. Spring 1996. Sinclair Community College: Bev, Dan, David, Jennifer B., Jennifer R., John, Lori, Marsha, and Stephanie. The topic was chosen by these students.

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