¿Te gusta celebrar Halloween? (Do you like to celebrate Halloween?) I like it, but as a good Mexican, what I love the most is El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), a tradition originated in central and southern Mexico.
Many people from abroad confuse this day with the American Halloween, y las dos celebraciones (and both celebrations) come from All Hallows, mixed with Celtic rites (as Halloween) or with Aztec tales.
¿Sabías esto? (Did you know that?) In this article, you will learn 7 other interesting things you didn’t know about this amazing holiday, AND I’ll teach you some Spanish along the way as well.
1. ¿Día or Días?
El Día de los muertos (Day of the dead) is not a one-day (despite its name being in singular —Día instead of Días), but a multi-day holiday celebrated annually in Mexico on the first two days of November, and it’s a celebration of both vida y muerte (life and death) in which families commemorate their deceased loved ones.
Those who celebrate it believe that at midnight on el 31 de octubre (October 31st), the souls of all deceased children come down from heaven and reunite with their families on November 1, and the souls of deceased adults come visit on November 2.
The tradition has existed for around 3,000 years, as it started during the time of Los Aztecas (the Aztecs). It survived through the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived in central Mexico and thought the tradition was una blasfemia (blasphemous).
Luckily, instead of it being abolished, the celebration evolved to incorporate elements of la Cristiandad (Christianity), such as celebrating it on November 1 and 2 instead of on its original summer observance to coincide with Todos los Santos (All Saints’ or All Souls’ Day), a time to pray for departed souls.
Now a few useful Spanish phrases for el día de los muertos:
- El día de muertos empezó como una tradición azteca. (The Day of the Dead started as an Aztec tradition).
- La celebración consta de dos días: primero y dos de noviembre. (The celebration comprises two days: first and second of November).
- Todos los Santos es una celebración cristiana para orar por los muertos. (All Saints Day is a Christian Celebration to pray for the dead).
3. What are the altars?
Building the altar is perhaps the main custom of this ancient celebration. Often decorated in vibrant colors, like morado y naranja (purple and orange), los altares are piled with ofrendas (offerings), such as the deceased’s platos favoritos (favorite dishes), velas (candles), flores (flowers), and posesiones personales (personal possessions).
Para las almas de los niños (for the souls of children) who passed away, people leave skeleton toys and sugar skulls called calaveritas.
In many places such as Pátzcuaro, families build them right at the graveside of the deceased, and nowadays are also prepared by most public buildings. The planning can often take months, pero los resultados son espectaculares (but the results are spectacular).
Let’s see some sentences:
- Los altares son decorados en colores vivos; por ejemplo, el morado y el naranja. (The altars are decorated with vibrant colors; for example, purple and orange.)
- Las personas construyen altares para honrar a sus seres queridos que ya no están con ellos. (People build altars to honor and celebrate lost loved ones.)
- En algunos lugares, los altares son construidos en el cementerio. (In some places, altars are built in the graveyard.)
4. Flor de cempazúchitl (Mexican marigold) and eating pan de muerto
I’m not joking and, overall, I’m not making up this word: cempazúchitl…
Mexicans believe that this flower helps guide sus seres queridos (their loved ones) back to the world of the living, and given that it only flowers during the rainy season, which precedes the Day of the Dead, it has now become heavily and primarily associated with the festivities, just as another common tradition, the consumption of the so-called pan de muerto (dead’s bread).
Thankfully, this is not bread made of dead people! No matter what the name might lead you to think, te lo prometo (I promise) —aunque no lo puedo garantizar (although I can’t guarantee that). It’s a lightly orange-flavored sweet bread, which has ‘bonelike’ decorations on top of it and a sugar coating.
- Cempazúchitl guía a los muertos de regreso al mundo de los vivos. (Marigolds guide the dead back to the world of the living.)
- El pan de muerto tiene forma de hueso y está cubierto de azúcar. (The dead’s bread is shaped like a bone and covered in sugar.)
5. Las Calaveras or Calacas (Skulls) and las Catrinas
Las calaveras or calacas (skulls) are clothed, decorated and colorful skeleton figurines you’ve undoubtedly seen, but never knew the name for.
While calavera can loosely be translated as skull, the word calacas does not have a translation. We do have the word cráneo (the literal translation for skull), but it is used more in science or anatomy.
During the Day of the Dead, in some regions, calacas are parade dressed in long, sometimes regal and traditional Mexican dresses and styles. You may see calaveras (skulls), but Día de Muertos is about honoring the deceased by celebrating their life.
The idea is to remember a person as they were before they went to the afterlife. Each year, hundreds of people dress up as catrinas (tall female skeletons wearing a fancy hat with feathers), one of the strongest and most recognizable symbols of El día de los muertos. You have surely seen catrinas in various contexts because the striking unique makeup has become very trendy in the last years.
La historia de la catrina (the story of catrinas) goes deep into Mexican traditions as an Aztec goddess of death, but nowadays women paint their faces in colorful make-up and dress with elegant outfits evoking the famous symbolic skeleton.
Some relevant phrases include:
- Durante el día de muertos, en algunas regiones, hay desfiles de calaveras. (During the Day of the Dead, in some regions, there are calavera parades.)
- El Día de Muertos es acerca de honrar a los muertos celebrando sus vidas. (The Day of the Dead is about honoring the deceased by celebrating their life.)
- La Catrina era una diosa azteca de la muerte. (The Catrina was an Aztec goddess of death.)
6. Sharing stories about the deceased
One of the most evocative traditions during the Day of the Dead festivities is sharing amusing anécdotas y recuerdos (anecdotes and memories) about the deceased.
The joy for telling funny tales comes from the notion that the deceased would rather not be remembered somberly, sino con alegría (but cheerfully). Let’s see:
- Contar anécdotas y hablar de los muertos es una costumbre del Día de Muertos. (Telling anecdotes and talking about the dead is a Day of the Dead’s custom.)
- Nos gusta recordar a nuestros seres queridos con alegría. (We like to remember our loved ones with joy.)
7. The xoloitzcuintle dog is a guide to the region of the dead
You might have watched the movie Coco (by Disney) and seen Dante, the dog.
La raza de este perro (this dog’s breed) is called Xoloitzcuintle. This is a pure Mexican breed, and one of its characteristics is that they don’t have fur. In the film, Dante joins Miguel in his adventures when he’s —spoiler alert— in the “dead’s dimension”.
The Aztecs believed that, to access the region of the dead, a big river needed to be crossed and the deceased could be helped by their own dog, but if the deceased had not been good to their dog in life, the dead person would not cross it and they would not free su alma (their soul).
Let’s go over some sentences:
- Los aztecas creían que los perros ayudaban al alma. (Aztecs believed dogs helped the soul.)
- El nombre del perro xoloitzcuintle es una raza difícil de pronunciar. (The Xoloitzcuintle dog is a difficult breed to pronounce.)
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¡Muy bien! ¿Qué piensas del Día de Muertos? (What do you think about The Day of the Dead?) ¿Te gustaría asistir a una de estas celebraciones? (Would you like to attend one of these festivities?) Let me know in the comments!
Now, if you’re ready to dive deeper into the Mexican —and Latin— culture, what better way than by learning Spanish? Feel free to check out the other videos from me and the other Spring Spanish teachers on our channel.
We also have a free, more in-depth Spanish training on our website, where you’ll discover the method we use in our Spring Spanish Academy to teach students to speak fluent Spanish. You also get some free sample Spanish lessons that come straight from our Academy!