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What Is The Difference Between Santa Muerte And The Day of the Dead?

Updated on October 4, 2015
Traditional figurines used in altars for the Day of The Dead.
Traditional figurines used in altars for the Day of The Dead. | Source

Mexican Holidays

Southwestern Americans are becoming more and more familiar with their Mexican neighbors to the South whose celebrations and traditions were once separated by language and cultural barriers. Two traditions in particular are gaining widespread attention and they both feature skeletons. With Halloween being a huge part of American holiday celebrations, it's no wonder we are captivated by the curious bony icons of the Day of the Dead and Santa Muerte. But did you know they are mostly unrelated? While they appear to share some qualities, their reasons for being are quite different. Let me explain.

La Catrina is a classic Day of the Dead figure.
La Catrina is a classic Day of the Dead figure. | Source

Day of The Dead: What Is It?

Many Americans have been charmed and enchanted by the Mexican Day of the Dead. Art, costumes and festivals have sprung up across America and particularly in areas like where I live in the American Southwest. Little skeletons in traditional costumes, flowers, bright colors and candles are all part of the holiday but the biggest draw may be that it is celebrated around the same time as the American holiday Halloween. The Day of The Dead or Dia de los Muertos as it is called in Spanish celebrates the dearly departed. Family members and friends who have passed to the other side are memorialized and celebrated for one night of the year and it is believed that their spirits rejoin their earthly families to enjoy special offerings and altars that have been made in their honor at grave sites and in homes.

Hallmarks of the Day of the Dead are:

  • Pan de Muerto - a small roll with a little skeleton baked inside
  • Sugar Skulls- sugar and meringue powder are combined then molded and decorated with icing for the altars
  • Offrenzas - altars dedicated to the departed and decorated with photos, personal effects, sugar skulls, marigolds and salt water incense.
  • La Catrina- a cheerful skeleton woman in traditional colonial style Mexican garb. She may be confused with Santa Muerte.

The Day of the Dead is recognized from October 31 through November 2 and overlapping with All Saints Day. While the Catholic church does not formally recognize this tradition, it is not condemned, either.

What or Who is Santa Muerte?

Santa Muerte or "Holy Death" is a rogue patron saint of Mexico. A favorite of the underworld, Santa Muerte is often referred to as a "Narco Saint". There is no evidence for an exact date that she came to be and in fact the Catholic church does not condone her, in fact they condemn her. Despite this, however, she is revered, prayed to and respected amongst many Mexicans and South Americans. Her feast day is considered to be November 1 which is also All Saints Day (which is an actual Catholic Feast day). She is also revered in monthly processionals in some barrios and towns.

Santa Muerte is known by many names including:

  • La Hueseda
  • Holy Death
  • "The Little Bony One"
  • The White Lady
  • Santisma Muerte.

At first glance Santa Muerte may look like the Grim Reaper but her job is not to gather or ferry dead souls to the underworld. Instead she is a religious icon, a saint, who is prayed to as an intercessor at altars that are made to her. Some even believe she requires "payments". Altars are made to her using images, statues candles and incense. She is also a popular topic of jewelry, art and fashion.

The Day of the Dead and Santa Muerte do possess very similar traits to the untrained eye. While both have thematic elements that involve skeletons, their origins and reasons for being are quite different. One should also keep in mind their origins differ geographically. The Day of the Dead is a Oaxacan celebration tradition while Santa Muerte seems to be favored in the Barrios of Mexico City and in areas of heightened black market activity in a daily capacity where people must cope with the rigors of crime, poverty & illness.

Where is Oaxaca, Mexico?

A markeroaxaca, mexico -
Oaxaca, Mexico
get directions

Oaxaca is the birth place of the Day of the Dead. Oaxacans are also well known as the folk artisans of Mexico.

Each year starting in the fall, Tucson's Halloween celebrations begin to take shape. Home to two events that celebrate the very heart & soul of each of these icons, Tucson offers more than just Halloween as a way to get into the spooky spirit.

  1. The Santa Muerte Art Show takes place yearly at the Sacred Machine Museum & Curiosity Shop. Owned by Pop Surrealist artist Daniel Martin Diaz and his wife Paula Catherine Valencia and located on Congress Street, it is home to some of the best modern art anywhere. Celebrating the inspiration that Santa Muerte provides to the counter culture, the works in their gallery are truly the best of the best around. Featured by such publications as Juxtapoz Magazine online & Hi Fructose, Daniel and friends put on a show that should not be missed. 2012 Dates: September 7 - November 4, 2012
    Sacred Machine Museum & Curiosity Shop
    245 E Congress Street
    Tucson Arizona 85701
  2. The All Souls Procession is North America's first and best Day of the Dead Memorial parade. Organized by local non-profit group "Many Mouths One Stomach", the parade processional invites participants to dress in traditional or modern Day of the Dead style costumes, carry pictures of their dearly departed and march decorated floats through the 4th Avenue and Congress Street districts to a burning cauldron that sends parade-goers handwritten prayers to heaven. 2012 Date: November 4
  3. The Tucson Botanical Gardens Feast With The Dearly Departed is a craft and cultural fair in the gardens complete with art sale, music & luminaria lit paths to celebrate those who have gone before. 2012 Date: October 27 5pm - 8:30 pm

If you are looking for a cool destination vacation in the Fall, consider Tucson where you will find plenty to see and do this Halloween season!

Thanks For Reading About The Day of the Dead & Santa Muerte!

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    • OldWitchcraft profile image

      OldWitchcraft 5 years ago from The Atmosphere

      Good info. I just checked out the site - beautiful stuff!

      Good article. There's no direct relationship between la Dia de los Muertos and la Santa Muerte, but if you dig deep into Mexican culture and look at the pagan aspects from Europe and the indigenous ones, there is a common basis for both.

      I think the way Mexicans respect their ancestors and respect the spirits of the dead is a great example for all of us.

      Accolades and vote up!

    • floppypoppygifts profile image

      Carrie Button 5 years ago from Tucson, AZ

      Cool! I'm glad you liked it and if you ever come to Tucson I hope you can see the All Souls Parade. Very cool!

    • peachpower profile image

      peachpower 5 years ago from Florida

      This was so cool to read!! Thanks for sharing such detailed information- I really enjoyed reading this Hub, and I'm going to show it to my 13 year old. He is very interested in the macabre right now :) Voted up and awesome. Way to go!