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Top 10 Things to Know About the Day of the Dead

Top 10 Things to Know About the Day of the Dead

We’ve all heard about the Day of the Dead or seen the classic sugar skull paintings—but what does this celebration really represent?

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Over 500 woman gathered in Mexico City on November 1, 2014, to set a Guiness World Record for the largest gathering of women dressed as Catrina.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOMAS BRAVO, REUTERS

Here’s one thing we know: Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Though related, the two annual events differ greatly in traditions and tone. Whereas Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones.

The rituals are rife with symbolic meaning. The more you understand about this feast for the senses, the more you will appreciate it. Here are 10 essential things you should know about Mexico’s most colorful annual event.

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Left: Papel picado, or pierced papers, blow in the wind in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You can find papel picado around Mexico throughout the year, but especially around Day of the Dead.

Right: A Mexican woman sits at at a gravesite covered in marigolds and other flowers during a Day of the Dead celebration in Tzintzuntzan, Mexico.

PHOTOGRAPH BY RAUL TOUZON (LEFT) AND PHOTOGRAPH BY JAN SOCHOR, ALAMY (RIGHT)

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Left: There are endless variations of the Catrina sold in many forms during the holiday—and throughout the year in Mexico.

Right: Participants walk down a mural-painted street during Dia de los Muertos.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TINO SORIANO, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (LEFT)

RECOGNITION BY UNESCO

Thanks to efforts by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the term “cultural heritage” is not limited to monuments and collections of objects. It also includes living expressions of culture—traditions—passed down from generation to generation. In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos, but at its core, the holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.

HISTORY

Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

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