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The Day of the Dead: A Lasting Tradition

Updated on October 18, 2011


Despite the Conquest and forced conversion to Christianity, war, revolution and epidemics, the Indigenous peoples of Mexico have retained much of their rich traditions and religious beliefs and rituals from the Pre Colombian period. The Day of the Dead is one such tradition that survives and thrives today. The Mesoamerican roots of the Days of the Dead are incorporated with Spanish Catholic observances of All Saints and All Souls Days into the lush and textured commemoration of the Days of the Dead in contemporary Mexico, making it a uniquely Mexican observance that resonates with people the world over.

Mexico has one of the few rich histories in the world. Hundreds of years ago a great empire rose and with it an amazing knowledge and religious traditions. The empire of the Aztecs was vast and their knowledge of celestial events was unlike any in the world. Like many religions in the world they believed in many gods and worshiped them through sacrifice. For many people death was simply a part of life and there was no separation between them. The Aztec Gods were shown devotion through human sacrifice. They would sacrifice their enemies as well as their own people. Death was everywhere for the Aztecs but was a religious experience. This tradition was passed on from generation to generation. (Day)



In the 16th century conquistadors from Spain came to Mexico. Shortly after their arrival the Aztec Empire fell. The conquistadors brought with them the Roman Catholic Church beliefs and tried to convert all the Indigenous peoples they encountered. However when they first arrived and witnessed the system of beliefs and sacrifices that were part of the common practices of the Aztecs the Spaniards were horrified. The Spaniards were not accustomed to ritual sacrifice or the display of skulls, for them it was considered barbaric and against their belief system. For the Spaniards life was sacred and death was not celebrated like it was for the Aztecs. These rituals witnessed by the Spaniards drove them even more to convert the Aztecs to the Catholic Religion and abolish ritual sacrifice. (Day)

Only two years after the Spaniards arrived the Aztec Empire crumbled. There were already warring factions among the people of the great empire which made it easier for the Spaniards to conquer the lands and the people. Once the conquest was over for the land the conquest for the people began. Converting the people to the Catholic religion was a main goal of the Church. The Church had a great deal of power over the ruling parties and in order to better control and integrate the peoples of two nations conversion was required. Some of the Indigenous people took to Catholicism and others didn’t. This coupled with the power exerted over the people spurred more wars and revolutions. However over time the majority of the people submitted to the Catholic Church and converted. Yet even though they converted they still brought a great deal to the religion in the form of holidays and rituals. (Aztec Empire)


The Church

The Christian and Catholic religion is very similar in almost every way with only subtle differences. Christians are no strangers in assimilating other cultural traditions into their own. One such tradition was All Saints’ Day which is actually a combination of three separate celebrations, the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Roman celebration of Feralia, and the celebration of the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. In an attempt to abolish the celebration of multiple Gods as well as druidic and pagan beliefs, the Christians created a series of celebrations which included All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day and then finally All Souls’ Day. (Ancient Traditions) In much the same way that the Christians created sanctioned religious holidays to take the place of other deep rooted cultural traditions, the Catholics assimilated some of the Indigenous traditions of Mexico. The Church had already established holidays in the fall so when many of the people were converted to the Catholic faith it was not hard for the Indigenous people to bring their own beliefs into the religion.

The Church had established All Hallows Eve on October 31st and All Saints’ Day on November 1st, and then All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. These celebrations honor saints, martyrs and the dead. By the time the Spanish took control of the Mexican people and converted them these holidays had already been practiced for several hundred years. When the Church realized that the tradition of the Mexican people of honoring their dead in their own way was not able to be suppressed they gave in. November 2nd is the Day of the Dead and for a very long time was only celebrated in Mexico. It is a unique holiday that celebrates the dead and has very specific traditions that go back to the early beginnings of their Aztec culture. The Day of the Dead consists of altars, flowers, candy skulls, figurines, toys and festivities. The altars and skulls have a more obvious heritage than the flowers. Like their ancestors they would decorate altars dedicated to their loved ones who have passed. The altars are decorated in various styles depending upon the location in Mexico but would mostly be covered with offerings of food, flowers and skulls. The altars would be set up in businesses, homes and then also at the graveyard. For those who have lost children the celebrations would start a day earlier and the only difference would be that the people would leave offerings of toys. The preparations for the festivities would start with the cleaning of the home many days before the celebration. Many special foods would be prepared for feasting and for the dead. (Traditions) During the Day of the Dead celebrations the families of those who have departed will go to the graves and clean up the area. They will also decorate the area with offerings of food, flowers and pictures of the departed. During the festivities there will be singing and the telling of stories. (Tafoya)


Celebrating the Dead

For many people the death of a loved one is a somber moment that is not to be revisited. There is a separation between life and death that is only reinforced by having the dead buried far from the home or cremated. Many people choose not to talk about the dead and would never think to throw a party for them. The Day of the Dead is a celebration of the dead and is a major part of everyday life in Mexico. The people of Mexico choose to honor and cherish those they have lost like their ancestors did centuries before them. To some outsiders it would seem strange to cook food for the dead or to make altars and dedicate them to the dead. Yet most of the world lays flowers down at a grave site and in a way are decorating for the dead. It isn’t too far of a stretch to celebrate the dead in such a way. Because the people of Mexico have a special connection to the dead and a special understanding of death the celebration has carried over to other cultures.

The unique qualities of The Day of the Dead also give more meaning to death. Many people fear death and even fear being forgotten. However in Mexico the death is celebrated and the dead are always remembered. This brings a unique quality to life and death that many people may find more comforting then what they have been brought up to believe of death or expect after death. The belief behind The Day of the Dead is that those who have passed away are able to come and visit and celebrate with those of the living. The holiday is one of joy and happiness in remembering those who have passed on. For many people this kind of link between happiness and death is uncommon. Death has often been linked with sadness and depression. When outsiders see how the holiday is celebrated and how happy and joyous the people are there is going to be a natural gravitation to that kind of relationship with death. The happiness that follows a passing through the celebration of their life allows for people who are living to feel at ease with death and also may give a sense of peace knowing that they will always be remembered.



The Day of the Dead is a holiday that has survived for hundreds of years and carries on today. It has come from the Aztecs and survived suppression by the Church only to flourish in a very unique way. The rituals of the celebration come directly from historical roots from the Indigenous peoples of Mexico. Many people are unfamiliar with the kind of celebration of death that is unique to Mexico, however more and more people from around the world are adopting it to their own practices. By bringing life and death into perspective in a positive way people are able to gain more understanding of death and fear it less. Death is a major part of life and it is the only thing that everyone and everything will eventually go through. Sometimes it comes too soon for those who are young but nevertheless they will always be remembered, much like the traditions of the past that will not succumb to oppression or even conversion. Death is constant and the dead will continue to be celebrated and honored is a fashion that is infecting the world and bringing new traditions to old cultures. Mexico is giving the world a brighter future by showing how positive death can be.


Ancient Origins of Halloween. History. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. <>

Aztec Empire. Minnesota State University. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. <>

Day, Douglas. Natural History, Oct90, Vol. 99 Issue 10, p66. EBSCO. Web. 28 Nov. 2010.

Tafoya-Barraza, Helen. Day of the Dead. University of New Mexico. Web. 18 Nov. 2010. <>

Traditions of Mexico. El Dia de los Muertos. Houston Institute for Culture. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. < >


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