Belief in brief: Day of the Dead

Monday, November 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:42 a.m. CST, Monday, November 2, 2009

COLUMBIA — The Day of the Dead, also known as “El Dia de los Muertos,” is celebrated on Nov. 2. It is a day to honor family members and friends who have died. This holiday is typically celebrated in Mexico and by Latin Americans living in the United States.


The holiday can be traced back to a pre-Columbian Aztec festival. After Christianity was introduced to Latin America, the festival was moved from the ninth month on the Aztec calendar to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

Video: History of Day of the Dead


It is believed that the spirits of the dead come back to Earth on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. Families and friends observe many customs in order to make sure that the spirit will be comfortable during its visit.

November 1, El Dia de los Angelitos, is the day when spirits of children are believed to visit. November 2, the Day of the Dead, is when the spirits of the adult dead visit their loved ones.

Families traditionally clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones. Many times flowers are placed on the grave. A traditional flower is the orange marigold, which is believed to direct the attention of the spirit toward the offerings on their grave. Items the dead were fond of are also left at the grave site – for example, toys for children.

Alters and small shrines are commonly constructed in homes. They are often decorated with an image of the dead, food, candles, crosses or an image of the Virgin Mary. Items such as a wash bowl or a shaving kit may be included so the spirit can clean up after its long trip. Alters are also sometimes constructed in public places such as schools and government offices.

Images created by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada such as Catrina, a skeletal parody of an upper-class woman, are also common.

Video: Day of the Dead traditions


A few traditional foods are:

  • Sugar Skulls: Skulls made from sugar and decorated with icing. They are commonly placed on alters and with other offerings to the dead. The sugar skull has its roots in Aztec traditions that celebrated the lives of those who have passed away.
  • Pan de Muerto: A sweet bread that is also placed on alters, shrines and gravesites.
  • Tamales: Corn husks filled with corn dough. They are commonly filled with pork or chicken with red or green salsa.



Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.