Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, in particular the Central and South regions, and acknowledged around the world in other cultures. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey. In 2008 the tradition was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
The holiday is sometimes called Día de los Muertos in Anglophone countries, a back-translation of its original name, Día de Muertos. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico where the day is a public holiday. Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer. It was moved to October 31, November 1 and November 2 to coincide with the Western Christian triduum of Allhallowtide: All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves.
Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world, being absorbed within other deep traditions for honoring the dead. It happens to be a holiday that has become a national symbol and as such is taught (for educational purposes) in the nation’s schools, but there are families who are more inclined to celebrate a traditional “All Saints Day” associated with the Catholic Church.
Originally, the Day of the Dead as such was not celebrated in northern Mexico, where it was even unknown until the 20th century; before that the people and the church rejected it in northeastern Mexico because they perceived the day was a result of syncretizing pagan elements with Catholic Christianity. They held the traditional ‘All Saints Day’ in the same way as other Christians in the world. This is due to the limited or nonexistent Mesoamerican influence in this region, and the relatively few indigenous inhabitants from the regions of Southern Mexico. In the early 21st century in northern Mexico, Día de Muertos is observed because the Mexican government made it a national holiday by its educational policies from the 1960s and has tried to use it as a unifying national tradition in the north of the country.
In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, festivals and parades are frequently held and people often gather at cemeteries and pray for their deceased loved ones at the end of the day. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.
In France and some other European countries, All Souls Day was observed by visits of families to the graves of loved ones, where they left chrysanthemums. Writer Marguerite Yourcenar observed that
“autumnal rites are among the oldest celebrated on earth. It appears that in every country the Day of the Dead occurs at the year’s end, after the last harvests, when the barren earth is thought to give passage to the souls lying beneath it.”
She also notes exceptions to the autumn season, such as the Buddhist Bon festival which is held in summer. But similarly themed celebrations of honoring the dead have been practiced since prehistoric times in many Asian and African cultures.
Many other cultures around the world have similar traditions of a day set aside to visit the graves of deceased family members. Often included in these traditions are celebrations, food and beverages, in addition to prayers and remembrances of the departed.
In some African cultures, visits to ancestors’ graves, the leaving of food and gifts, and the asking of protection from them serve as important parts of traditional rituals, such as one ritual that is held just before the start of the hunting season.
The Qingming Festival (simplified Chinese: 清明节; traditional Chinese: 清明節; pinyin: qīng míng jié) is a traditional Chinese festival usually occurring around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar. Along with Double Ninth Festival on the 9th day of the 9th month in the Chinese calendar, it is a time to tend to the graves of departed ones. In addition, in the Chinese tradition, the seventh month in the Chinese calendar is called the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits come out from the underworld to visit earth.
The Bon Festival (O-bon (お盆), or only Bon (盆)), is a Japanese Buddhist holiday held in August to honor the spirits of departed ancestors. It is derived in part from the Chinese observance of the Ghost Month, and was affixed to the solar calendar along with other traditional Japanese holidays.
In Korea, Chuseok (추석, 秋夕; also called Hangawi) is a major traditional holiday. People go where the spirits of their ancestors are enshrined, and perform ancestral worship rituals early in the morning; they visit the tombs of immediate ancestors to trim plants, clean the area around the tomb, and offer food, drink, and crops to their ancestors.
During the Nepali holiday of Gai Jatra (“Cow Pilgrimage”), every family who has lost a member during the previous year creates a tai out of bamboo branches, cloth, and paper decorations, in which are placed portraits of the deceased. As a cow traditionally leads the spirits of the dead into the afterlife, an actual or symbolic cow is used depending on local custom. The festival is also a time to dress up in costume reminiscent of the western Halloween, with popular subjects including political commentary and satire.