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What Is Day of the Dead?

The Story Behind Day of the Dead

El Día De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of Latin America's most misunderstood holidays. The day celebrated just after Halloween (usually on Nov. 1 and 2) features a variety of "spooky costumes" and decor, which causes many people to mistakenly think of it as "Mexican Halloween."

The holiday began as an Aztec harvest gathering originally celebrated around the end of Summer, with people using the time to honor those loved ones who had passed away. When Spanish conquistadors came into the area, they sought to bring Catholic influence to the Latin-American region, tying Day of the Dead to the Catholic traditions of All Saints' and All Souls' Day, which respectively serve to call us to live as saints and to ask for God's mercy for all souls by praying for them. The farming celebration was thus moved to November and converted into a sacred holiday to honor the dead. But the Day of the Dead is far from a somber occasion; instead, it's a lively celebration, complete with food, music, colorful decorations, and candles.

The Day of the Dead's two-day structure allows families to remember children who have died on the first day and adults on the second. Celebrators believe the spirits of their loved ones are allowed to join and communicate with the people they left behind on those two days. The celebration encourages that idea with people leaving out sugar skulls (calaveras), toys for kids, and food for adults, along with alcohol and some of their beloved possessions (such as clothing, music, or photos).

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The celebration also includes leaving ofrendas on beautiful homemade altars decorated with cutouts of skulls and skeletons on papel picado (punched or pierced paper), which symbolizes wind and the fragility of life. These altars are decorated and then left in either the person's home or on their tomb to show that they have not been forgotten, welcoming them back to visit.

One of the most widely recognized symbols of the holiday is La Catrina, or "the lady in the hat," a female skeleton who wears an elegant, brightly colored dress. Unlike the skeletons associated with Halloween, La Catrina is not meant to scare people on the Day of the Dead, but rather show that it's OK to laugh at death itself. Her elegance is also meant to refer to rich people to show that in death, we are all equal.

While El Día de los Muertos was initially only celebrated in Mexico, it has since evolved to other countries including the US, thanks to the rapidly growing Hispanic population and an increasing influence of Latin-American culture.

So, while on the surface the Day of the Dead might appear to mirror Halloween, the holidays are actually vastly different with the Latin-American tradition remembering the lives of those who have left us and briefly inviting them back instead of inciting fear. Through this two-day gathering, families celebrate death as a beautiful, joyful, and symbolic event.

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