What is Day of the Dead? A look into its history and how to celebrate

It may be known as the Day of the Dead, but Dia de Muertos is very much a celebration of life. 

When the Day of the Dead festivities occur in late October and early November in Mexico and many parts of the U.S., it is a chance for the living to honor their dearly departed, with celebration – not sorrow. 

Marigolds are a common decoration used for most Day of the Dead celebrations along with festive music while children and adults dress as skeletons signaling their ability to communicate with the dead. 

What exactly is Day of the Dead?


OCOTEPEC, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01: Offering for the death at the Dolores chapell during a 'Day of the Dead' celebration on November 01, 2020 in Ocotepec, Mexico. Known as one of the most representative traditions in Mexico, the day of the dead takes pla

The Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, honors departed souls of loved ones who are welcomed back for a few intimate hours. At burial sites or intricately built altars, photos of loved ones are centered on skeleton figurines, bright decorations, candles, candy and other offerings such as the favorite foods of the departed. Pre-Columbian in origin, many of the themes and rituals now are mixtures of indigenous practices and Roman Catholicism.

The holiday is celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and parts of Ecuador. Leading up to the day, bakers make sugar skulls and sweet "bread of the dead," and artists create elaborate paper cut-out designs that can be hung on altars. Some families keep private night-long vigils at burial sites.


A woman gets her makeup done before a parade marking the national Mexican holiday "The Day of the Dead" in the Mexican fan house in Moscow on June 29, 2018 during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. (Photo by Maxim ZMEYEV / AFP) (Photo cre

In North America, decorations often center on images of La Calavera Catrina — a skeleton of an upper-class woman whose image was made popular by the late-Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. She is typically seen on photos or through papier-mache statues alongside other skeletal figures in everyday situations like playing soccer, dancing or getting married.

La Catrina is the most popular recreated figure related to the holiday. "She is our best-selling item," said Torres, 35, who owns the Masks y Mas in Albuquerque, a shop that sells Day of the Dead art and clothing year-round. "I have artists sending me their Catrina pieces from all over."

History of Dia de Muertos

No one knows when the first observance took place, but it is rooted in agriculture-related beliefs from Mexico’s pre-Hispanic era, said Andrés Medina, a researcher at the Anthropological Research Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Catholic traditions were incorporated into the celebration after the Spanish conquest in 1521.

"In that mythology, the corn is buried when it’s planted and leads an underground life for a period to later reappear as a plant," Medina said. The grain of corn is seen as a seed, comparable to a bone, which is seen as the origin of life.

Day of the Dead is evolving in Mexico

The holiday was always an intimate family tradition observed with home altars and visits to local cemeteries. 


Families of fallen soldiers observing the Day of Dead, visiting and decorating the graves. (Photo by Cindy Karp/Getty Images)

Now, the influence of American Halloween continues to merge with the traditions. 

"These elements carry a new meaning in the context of the original meaning of the festival, which is to celebrate the dead. To celebrate life," said Medina.

Expansion into the US

Not only are U.S.-born Latinos adopting the Day of the Dead, but various underground and artistic non-Latino groups have begun to mark the Nov. 1-2 holidays through colorful celebrations, parades, exhibits and even bike rides and mixed martial arts fights.


GUANAJUATO, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 1: A woman dressed as a catrina poses for a photo with her dog xoloitzcuintle breed prior to the parade of the day of the dead festival in Guanajuato as part of the 2021 'Day of The Dead' celebration on November 1, 2021

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In Houston, artists hold a "Day of the Dead Rock Stars" where they pay homage to departed singers like Joey Ramone, Johnny Cash and even "El Marvin Gaye." Community centers in Los Angeles build altars for rapper Tupac Shakur and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

"It's everywhere now," said Carlos Hernandez, 49, a Houston-based artist who launched the "Day of the Dead Rock Stars" event. "You can even get Dia de los Muertos stuff at Wal-Mart."

In 2019, Mattel unveiled a limited-edition Dia de Muertos Barbie figure. 

According to Mattel, the doll’s face is painted with a traditional skull mask in celebration of the holiday that honors lost loved ones.

The Barbie doll is dressed in an elaborate crown with monarch butterflies and bright marigolds and a long velvet black dress.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.