Day of the Dead 2022: How to Understand Dias de los Muertos

The influence of Day of the Dead has spread beyond its origins in Mexico – here’s how to celebrate it while respecting ancient traditions

<p> A woman dressed as Katrina participates during the “Day of the Dead” parade in Guanajuato, Mexico (Getty Images) </p>
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A woman dressed as Katrina participates during the “Day of the Dead” parade in Guanajuato, Mexico (Getty Images)

Rooted in the heart of Mexican culture and enjoyed around the world, Día de los Muertos, which translates to “Day of the Dead” in English, celebrates the blissful reunion of the living and the souls of the deceased.

Esteban Toma, educator and content producer at Babel Liveexplains what Día de los Muertos actually refers to, how it differs from Halloween, and shares a vision of honoring this sacred celebration.

Día de los Muertos is the ultimate in celebration of life, both for the living and for loved ones who have died. The holiday serves as a reminder that life and death complement each other and can coexist with joy, as friends and family gather to remember loved ones who have passed, cherish cherished memories, and even come to terms with the inevitability of death.

Where and when is Día de los Muertos celebrated?

This Mexican holiday dates back over a thousand years, and stems from the ancient Aztecs. Similar celebrations are observed annually across Latin America, usually on the first and second of November (although the dates of the celebration may fluctuate by region).

Since the Día de los Muertos is an ancient holiday, its traditions and rituals can be traced back to the pre-Hispanic people of Mexico, who enjoyed the festivities by attracting them for an entire month. The ancient ceremonies were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, also referred to as “Our Lady of the Dead,” who inspired many of the symbols that are still prominent today.

One such prolific symbol is the skulls and bones, which the early Aztecs used during the Día de los Muertos to honor Mictecacihuatl and those who passed by. Today, Mexicans wear face paint, masks, and costumes in honor of this ancient tradition, and the belief that death brought new life was part of life’s cyclical journey.

How is Día de los Muertos celebrated?

Latinos around the world celebrate Día de los Muertos, but the biggest celebrations tend to be in Mexico, other areas of Latin America, and the United States. While November 1 and November 2 are the real dates for this holiday, parades, celebrations, and parties often begin in early October, which is why many people may confuse this holiday as the Mexican equivalent of Halloween, but while the festivities may be commonly rooted in Christmas, All Saints, it has a completely different meaning.

A woman wears a “La Llorona” costume in the Pantheon as part of a “Day of the Dead” celebration in Tijuana, Mexico (Getty Images)

Today, Día de los Muertos uses many ancient traditions during its festivities, from honoring the deceased with marigold flowers – ‘cempazúchitl’ – to using ‘calaveras’, edible or decorated skulls made of either sugar or clay. Many would build ‘ofrendas’, household altars, and visit graves to present gifts to the dead as an incentive to be reunited with loved ones still alive.

In urban areas, people take to the streets for festive celebrations, with some wearing wooden masks known as “calacas”. Often, games and food, including bread and candy in the shape of skulls and skeletons, are created as a symbolic gesture to the holiday’s origins.

It is also worth noting that in Mexican culture, the skeletal symbol of death is not perceived as frightening, as evidenced by La Calavera Catrina (Skull Catrina). The whole ceremony shows affinity with deceased relatives on a level not found in many other cultures.

An aerial view of the Pantheon San Andres Mixquick as part of the 2021 “Day of the Dead” celebration in Mexico City (Getty Images)

Why is it important not to associate Halloween with the Día de los Muertos?

Día de los Muertos is deeply rooted in tradition and family and embraces the cyclical nature of life. The symbols, clothing, and makeup that are adopted throughout the Día de los Muertos enable these cultural traditions to live, while allowing new generations to forge their own path during the festivities.

Treating the symbols and clothing worn during the Día de los Muertos as costume is a form of cultural appropriation. However, if you are interested in learning about Latinx culture, many local Latinx groups hold ceremonies where you can appropriately show your appreciation for Latinx culture.

How to celebrate Día de los Muertos with respect:

  • Don’t wear symbols associated with Día de los Muertos like Halloween costumes. Wear it if you’re celebrating with respect and appreciating the holiday and its meaning.
  • embracing latin culture. Be sure to enjoy traditional food and drink, such as mole, a traditional dish with many regional variations, and Atole (a drink associated with Día de los Muertos), as these dishes form a large part of Mexican identity, dating back to pre-Hispanic Mexico. Listen and dance to modern and traditional Latin music, and find books, podcasts, and museum exhibits about Latin culture, to better connect with the rich culture and history that this region has to offer.
  • Don’t change your way of speaking, or the color of your skin, when embracing this holiday and culture. However, try your hand at Spanish! Learn simple greetings such as “¡Hola, espero que estés bien!” and common expressions, such as “salud” if you’re offering toast and “buen provecho” when sharing a meal, to help ensure you have a memorable and culturally enriching dining experience while honoring the holiday.

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