Halloween, the last night of October, has become a popular holiday for costumes, tricks, and treats. The origins of this tradition, however, are more complex than it would appear. It has evolved from numerous practices around the world, and although it is now largely a festive event, many of the customs that contributed to Halloween have more serious meanings. Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), for instance, recognizes the religious holiday All Hallows’ Eve, from which Halloween took its name. This custom, practiced throughout much of Mexico, is dedicated to the souls of the deceased.
The present version of Día de los Muertos descended from native practices, particularly those of the Aztec. Its most similar ancestor was a festival dedicated to a female goddess of the dead, during which the Aztec remembered and honored the deaths of their ancestors. In ancient times, skulls were often kept as trophies or memorials, and they were prominently displayed as the natives payed tribute to the deceased. The skull remains a popular symbol and is one of the most visible signs of the connection between Día de los Muertos and its predecessors. Although bones are no longer kept for display during the holiday, skulls are found in images, figurines, and other displays related to el Día. Small, decorated skulls formed from sugar or clay are commonly found during the holiday as well.
These decorative skulls are among many offerings made to the deceased during the holiday. As families gather for Día de los Muertos, it is customary to visit ancestors’ graves and leave small gifts. In addition to those associated with the holiday (such as skulls), many visitors also leave items of personal value or meaning. The deceased’s favorite food or drink (tequila and mezcal are particularly popular) as well as their belongings are often placed by graves. The Mexican marigold, often planted by graves in observance of the holiday, has become so strongly affiliated with el Día that it is now referred to as the Flower of the Dead (el Flor de Muerto) in most parts of Mexico.
Many families also erect small altars or memorials in their homes in the days approaching el Día, adorning the structures with photos and mementos of lost relatives. Such practices, usually highly religious in nature, are meant to honor the dead while preserving fond memories and encouraging reflection on their lives. The community also undertakes joint projects; schools and other organizations often build larger memorials to commemorate the holiday.
The Day of the Dead is observed not only across the majority of Mexico, but in many other nations (particularly those of Latin America) as well. Although the holiday and its purpose are shared across borders, celebrations are far from uniform. A wide variety of practices have evolved in different regions, ranging from traditional and religious to festive and celebratory. But regardless of the manner in which it is celebrated, el Día promotes solidarity by presenting families with an opportunity to mourn the loss of loved ones and celebrate their lives with other members of their communities who have experienced the same sorrow.