The end of Halloween doesn’t mean it’s time to whip out the Thanksgiving or Christmas decorations, as Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead – gives families time to honor and remember loved ones that are no longer in the “land of the living.”
Known for dazzling displays and the colorful calaveras – decorated skulls – people make or use as makeup, the holiday’s origins go back a couple of millennia in Mexico, to the time of the Aztec empire.
Aztecs had traditions of honoring the dead, believing that when someone died, their spirit went to the underworld. When the Spanish arrived and later conquered the Aztec empire in the 16th century, they brought along Christianity and Catholicism, infusing the indigenous ritual with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, which is Nov. 1 and Nov. 2.
“It emerges as kind of a hybrid of both Spanish, Christian and indigenous ideas about the living and the dead,” John Phillip Santos, senior lecturer in Mestizo cultural studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told USA TODAY.
What is Dia de los Muertos?
What does Dia de los Muertos honor?
Since the time of the Aztecs, the holiday has gone through transitions of how it’s celebrated and honored, but the key element is that for two days, ancestors and recently departed have the chance to visit and see the ones left behind.
“It’s a way of observing this aspect of our story that is connected to ancestral journeys,” Santos said.
It may sound spooky, but the indigenous belief is that the living world and the land of the dead, or underworld, were intermingled, Santos adds.
While Christianity and Catholicism preach there’s only heaven and hell, there are multiple places spirits can go once they leave the living world, it just depends on how the person died, and how old they were when they died. Infants, for example, are seen as becoming guardian angels once they leave the living world. That’s why the holiday is celebrated on two days: Nov. 1 is in remembrance of the young and Nov. 2 is for adults.