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10 Fascinating Facts About the Day of the Dead

Learn the Day of the Dead facts that keep this ancient tradition thriving.

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The Day of the Dead has a history older than Christmas

Let’s ballpark and say Jesus of Nazareth was born in the year 1 A.D. (despite the scholars who argue Jesus’ birthday was, confusingly, closer to 5 B.C.). While Mary and Joseph were bickering over baby names, Mesoamerican cultures like the Maya were already about 1,000 years deep into an annual festival of death and rebirth, honoring their departed ancestors and the gods of the great beyond. To many indigenous Americans, death was seen as a continuance of life; a shift from one phase of being to another, like a butterfly reborn from a caterpillar’s cocoon. This powerful connection between the living and the dead persists at the core of today’s Día de Muertos—known in English as “The Day of the Dead”—celebrated throughout much of Mexico and the Southwestern United States on November 1st and 2nd every year. If you believe there is more to life than meets the eye, follow along for Day of the Dead facts, one of the world’s most beautiful and supernatural celebrations. You won’t want to miss these gorgeous photos of Dia de los Muertos celebrations from around the world.

Aztec Ruins National MonumentZack Frank/Shutterstock

The “Day of the Dead” is really two days—but it used to be a month

The Spanish Conquistadors who stumbled upon the Aztec empire in the early 1500s would have witnessed some shocking funerary rites, but they wouldn’t have been so surprised if they knew these Day of the Dead facts. For one, the Aztecs made a month-long celebration of the cycle of life and death to coincide with the summer corn harvest; holding real human skulls in hand, they paid homage to dead friends and relatives along with the Queen of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. The Spanish fought to convert the Native population to Catholicism—one reason why Día de Muertos is now celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively. Thankfully, many of the indigenous holiday traditions persist for at least a few days a year.

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Skulls are the ultimate party favor

Following the Aztec tradition, skulls remain a vital part of Día de Muertos today—but thankfully for the squeamish among us, they’re mostly made of sugar. Calaveritas (Spanish for “little skulls”) are the traditional treat of Día de Muertos, and can often be seen decorating altars and gravestones of lost loved ones throughout the holiday. In many American celebrations, skull makeup and wooden masks are official designations of where the party’s at. Fitting, considering the skeleton was used to symbolize the dead playfully mocking the living in ancient rituals. If these Day of the Dead facts are eerie, these stories of people receiving signs from the dead will give you chills.

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Cemeteries are the ultimate party destination

You’ve got a stocked picnic basket, a bottle of primo tequila, and your whole family by your side—time to hit the cemetery! Today’s Día de Muertos is split between two days—November 1st, the Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”), which is reserved for honoring dead children, and November 2nd, the Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), reserved for honoring dead adults—from the Day of the Dead facts we know, both are likely to draw vast crowds to the local graveyard for celebration. Traditional events include cleaning the graves of loved ones, leaving offerings for their spirits (including their favorite foods and, often, tequila), decorating tombstones with marigolds (the traditional flower of the dead), and sitting with family to share humorous memories of the dear departed. In some parts of Mexico, families spend all night beside the graves of their relatives.

©Disney

Disney tried to copyright “Día De Los Muertos.”

In 2012, Pixar announced a new movie inspired by Día de Muertos (“Hooray!”). One year later, the Walt Disney Company filed a trademark request for the phrase “Día de los Muertos” for merchandising purposes (“Wait, seriously? Uh…”). As you might expect, the corporate juggernaut’s attempt to poach a millennia-old cultural tradition for toy sales was not seen as “magical.” Social media users loudly disparaged the move, eventually circulating a Change.org petition with more than 21,000 signatures chiding the attempted trademark as “cultural appropriation and exploitation at its worst.” Within a week, Disney canceled their trademark request—and soon announced that the film would be called simply “Coco.”

iStock/Arturo Peña Romano Med

If Día de Muertos had a Mickey Mouse, it would be Catrina

Remember Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld who presided over their month-long death festival? Much how real human skulls became sugar skulls, Mictecacihuatl persists in today’s holiday under a slightly more palatable costume. In the early 1900s, Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada etched the image of a dapper lady skeleton in a luxurious European hat, harking back to the Aztec lady of death, herself. Named La Calavera Catrina, the print was meant to poke fun at indigenous persons more enamored with European fashion than their own rich heritage. Over the decades, Catrina became a referential image of death in Mexico, and soon a representative of Día de Muertos itself. You can see her everywhere from Diego Rivera murals to handcrafted wooden dolls sold in curbside stalls.

iStock/Joel Carillet

You don’t have to go to Mexico to celebrate

In any city with a Mexican influence, you will find people who know their Day of the Dead facts and celebrating Día de Muertos. Since 1990, the city of Tucson, Arizona has held an annual All Souls’ Procession on Día de Muertos, encouraging locals to join in a parade with painted faces and signs honoring the dead while a giant paper urn is filled with prayers and ceremonially burned. Santa Ana, California, is said to host the country’s largest Día de Muertos celebration, drawing up to 40,000 participants. Wherever you are on November 1st and 2nd this year, spare some thoughts for the departed; they may just be listening.

10 Fascinating Facts About the Day of the DeadCarlos Ivan Palacios/Shutterstock

Spirits are invited into the house through ofrendas

Unlike Halloween, Day of the Dead facts always reinforce the idea that ghosts should not be feared. Instead, spirits of deceased loved ones are truly welcomed into the home. But not without a grand welcoming with the ofrenda. Ofrenda is the Spanish word for offering, and these offerings are set up on an altar. These altars have elements representing earth, wind, fire, and water. Earth is represented by food, specifically pan de muertos, which means bread for the dead. Wind is represented through tissue paper that families decorate their altars with. Candles and water are set to display the last two elements, with the candles allowing light to lead the path for the dead. Though all ofrendas will have a section dedicated to God, what sets each family’s ofrenda apart are the personal possessions and photographs of the dead family members. As a way of honoring the dead, families place their loved one’s favorite items on the altar, like hats, toys, or instruments. 

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on orange Mum flowers during autumn migration. Natural green background with copy spaceLeena Robinson/Shutterstock

Monarch butterflies hold significance

Most people recognize skulls as a symbol for Día de Muertos. One of the Day of the Dead facts and symbols that often goes unnoticed, though, is the monarch butterfly. In nature, monarch butterflies fly south from Canada and the United States into Mexico during the winter months, so in early November. They cannot survive in areas where the temperature drops below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and they also need to live where flowers are in bloom to survive off its nectar. Thus, the monarch butterfly’s journey to Mexico conveniently during the celebration of Día de Muertos. For the people of Mexico though, monarch butterflies embodies the spirits of their dead loved ones flying back home. 

10 Fascinating Facts About the Day of the DeadByelikova Oksana/Shutterstock

UNESCO recognizes it as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, says on its website that “cultural heritage” is not limited to monuments or tangible objects. Rather, it encompasses all “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.” Having this list of celebrations and customs from around the world is important to keep traditions alive and increase awareness of the diverse heritages. Just knowing Day of the Dead facts is important, but recognizing the special holiday in this way allows for an ancient tradition to transcend through generations for thousands of more years. Next, if you’re looking for a sugar skull craft or other spooky decorations, check out all of these cheap Halloween decorations you can make at home.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest