Halloween Town: Dia de los Muertos

Despite early settlers attempts to “civilize” the natives with Christian tradition, Dia de los Muertos—or Day of the Dead—is still one of the most widely celebrated holidays in all of Mexico. And in the Valley of the Sun, too, so it would seem.

Although Dia de los Muertos is closely associated with Halloween, the holidays have very little in common, beyond the feasting and the partying. Dia de los Muertos officially occurs not on October 31, but on November 2, in connection with the Catholic All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).

It’s all about honoring your ancestors. People don wooden skull masks (“calacas”) and dance around. They build full altars to the dead, meant to remember and pay homage to those gone—a good idea, especially since many ancient celebrators of the Day of the Dead believe spirits come back to visit the living on this hallowed day.

Dia de los Muertos is also about visiting cemeteries—in effect, visiting your dead relatives—and decorating their graves with flowers and candles. One source suggested bringing a bottle of tequila to leave behind for the dead. (Do you think old Aunt Myrtle would mind if I took a tiny sip?) It’s an all-day thing. You sit on a blanket, have a kind of picnic, and eat your dead relative’s favorite dish.

Maybe you think this is morbid, but look at it from the perspective of native Mexican people. To them, death was not the end of life; it was a continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. When you look at it that way, you can see how this event turns into a big party by the end of the day!

Since we’re so close to Mexico here in AZ, there are countless Dia de los Muertos celebrations going on in the Valley of the Sun. Here’s a mere smattering:

  • Dia de los Muertos. Mesa Arts Center, Mesa, AZ. October 30–31. “Join the arts center for its fourth annual Dia de los Muertos Festival, Saturday and Sunday.  Mesa Arts Center ignites in a celebration of departed loved ones in the traditional manner observed for centuries in towns across Mexico.  The Mercado features vibrant colors, an assortment of traditional and contemporary merchandise, jewelry, Mexican arts & crafts, and more from local artisans and vendors.  Live entertainment, food, family, and fun will be abundant!”
  • Dia de los Muertos. Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ. October 30–31. “Come to the Garden for Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, a colorful tradition that honors and celebrates departed loved ones in a festival setting. Enjoy entertainment that will bring the history of the holiday to life with song, dance, and storytelling. Festivities culminate with La Procesión. Experience the Desert Botanical Garden’s interactive altar honoring Día de los Muertos. Delicious Mexican food, pastries, and beautiful Mexican art will be available for purchase in the Gardens Mercado.”

I’m not suggesting you obsess over dead people for the day. But—especially if you live in the valley—you should definitely take a look into the famous celebration of the country downstairs. And why not? There’s gonna be good food, cool masks, and creepy altars. What’s not to like? And it never hurts to commune with your dead relatives and friends. Let’s face it: we miss them. So in memory of Papa Dobie, Grandma Dobie, Uncle Barney, Christa, and Simon the Cat, I’ll see you this weekend for Dia de los Muertos.

76 thoughts on “Halloween Town: Dia de los Muertos

    • Glad your opinion has changed! I think it’s a pretty cool way to honor our dead without focusing on the sadness or emptiness left in the wake of missing someone.

    • I have never been to Mexico 😦 I’m kind of obsessed with Frida Kahlo. I would love, love to see her house near Mexico City. Maybe someday. And maybe someday I’ll actually attend a Mexican cemetery on Day of the Dead!

  1. That sounds so cool. The college I’m in have a radio show and for the Halloween show we talked about the history of Halloween and traditions around the world, I really wish I new this before the show

    • I know! I’ve only been in AZ since March, so when I heard about this, I was so excited to be a part of this culture. I already love Halloween! Now there’s a whole new way to celebrate!

      • I live in Ireland and barely anyone does anything for Halloween anymore. I love Halloween it’s my favourite holiday I used to make my own costume and look forward to it for months. Let me now if there’s any cool Christmas celebrations that I could talk about on that show (hopefully something involving costumes and a big celebration if so I’m moving ha)

  2. I love learning of different ways people celebrate Halloween! I’ve only known the American way, but this is so cool I think I’ll explore other cultures now! Thanks for sharing this!

    • Not only do I find Dia de los Muertos to be fascinating, but I interviewed a Wiccan priestess last week on my blog about their religious holiday, called “Samhain.” She gave me a whole other perspective on the Halloween, too. I love learning about other cultures, so the more I can know about holiday celebrations, the better!!

    • Ooooo, yes, that’s a wonderful idea. I’m going to my first Day of the Dead celebration Saturday!!! I’ll probably spend a fortune. I love the little skulls!

  3. Dia de los Muertos, I guess it is in Mexican language. Thanks for your post to give a detailed explanation about this Mexican traditional festeval. Among your post, I would say, the most impressing point to me is the perspective of native Mexican people to Dia de los Muertos: Death is not fearable thing. it’s a kind of continue of life. For that means theywill live a happier life when their relative die than people from other culture in which death is treated in a much sadder way.

    • I agree. I love the point of view of the Mexican people. So different from most Americans. It’s a truly peaceful way to look at death. And a heck of a good reason for a party 🙂

  4. I have been in Mexico, and I must say that I really like the way how they treat death. They know thats something natural and they trying to celebrate it in happy way.

  5. Aside from the rest of the rich cultural history of Mexico, and the vast amount of ruins to visit, Dia de los Muertos has been one of the biggest reasons I want to go to Mexico. Perhaps one day…thanks for sharing…love the pictures!

  6. This is such a reflective season for me. Several relatives have died in the fall and it’s kind of turned me off of Halloween. I’ve always liked the Day of the Dead art work and have read a lot about it; now as I’ve aged out of my love of the ghoulish aspects of Halloween, the reflective aspects of Dia de los Muertes bring a lot of comfort.
    Thanks for the post and pics.

  7. I AM MEXICAN AND NOWERDAYS, HALLOWEEN AND DIA DE LOS MUERTOS ARE SLOWLY LIKE ONE, THEY ARE BEING MIXED. WE DO CELEBRATE DIA DE LOS MUERTOS AS ALWAYS, BUT YOUNG PEOPLE HAS ADDED TO THE CELEBRATIONS, PARTIES WITH COSTUMES AND THE KIDS GOING FOR ” TREAT OR TRICK.” BUT OUR COSTUMES ARE ALWAYS SCARY AND ALWAYS RELATED TO THE DEATH.

    COME WITH US AND LET’S CELEBRATE THE “DEATHS DAY”.

    • I feel like the two holidays definitely have their similarities, but it’s nice to keep them separate, too. I wish I could celebrate in Mexico! Would be an amazing experience.

    • I’m definitely buying some decorations at the Day of the Dead celebration in AZ. Looking forward to it. I love the skulls!

  8. I celebrate El Dia de Los Murtos every year. I go all the way & put an Ofrenda out for my passed away relatives and ancestors. Thank you for bringing attention to this important day!

      • We (they) don’t… really. Halloween is catching on here in Italy, but it’s still fairly new. Being my favorite holiday though, I’m happy Halloween is growing in popularity. You can even start to see soome store windows done up with pumpkins and witches and some bars having Halloween parties.

        I’m organizing a big party this year and I’m FORCING everyone to come in costume! Should be fun! :-p

    • You’re very right! Check out a post I did a couple weeks back. It was an interview with a Wiccan priestess. So interesting!

  9. Awesome to see that this tradition is still going strong in Arizona! It’s very much alive in New Mexico, too.

    It’s wonderful living in a part of the U.S. where ritual is positive and accessible as normal part of life– in this case, a festival– the way it is in many other parts of the world.

    Do they have some form of Zozobra- burning “Old Man Gloom” in Phoenix, too?

    Very much enjoyed the post!

    • I’m not sure about Zozobra. I haven’t been here very long, so I’m still learning about local culture. Will have to check it out!

  10. A real A – Z of death from AZ!

    This is a very interesting post as it shows how Christianity has tried to co-opt and merged with pagan festivals all around the world in order to own them or influence them. It’s no surprise then that the Dia de los Muertos now coincides with Catholic All Saints Day.

    It should be no great task for catholics to engage with Dia de los Muertos as each time they look at the Cross they are confronted by it. The bible reports the crucification as the moment Christ “died on the Cross” and it is this moment the Catholic faith has chosen to crystalised by keeping him hanging.

    Whilst the idea is to show Christ’s suffering and the scarifice, and keep everyone subjugated to doctrine or aware of burning (the view depending on your interpretation or perspective) it does force everyone to focus on his death mask and a dia de los Muerto 365 days of the year.

    A confluence of traditions? Now anyone want to hazard a guess at why Christmas Day is on the 25th December?

    Love this sort of thing which is why I have started the “You Couldn’t Script it” theme at englistics.

    http://englistics.wordpress.com/

  11. Sara, I spent five years in Mexico and indeed the Day of the Dead is both an honor for absent friends, and a celebration of life.

    BTW, it would be nice if the ignitephoenix event was also webcast…I hear its something great and would be cool if we could view it from outta town, and even participate.
    Something to think about…all the best,/tony

    • Hey, Tony! Ignite Phoenix usually is webcast! There’s usually info about the webcast at the Ignite Phoenix website. I’m involved with Ignite Phoenix After Hours, and we will not be webcasting this event, because of possible content issues (R and X, included). Wouldn’t want to freak anyone out on the internet! Will mention your comment to my fellow Ignite folk!

  12. Viva Frida Kahlo!!

    It’s been years since I’ve properly celebrated Dia de los Muertos; I lived in El Salvador until I was eight, then migrated to Australia many years ago. It’s a nice idea to honour the dead instead of fearing them but it’s still fun to dress up and get sweets. Here in Australia they don’t celebrate Halloween so this time of year always makes me nostalgic. Thanks for the post and the memories it conjured up.

    P.S. I love the first photo of the skeleton and the Frida paintings. One of your own?

    • I wish that was my picture. I am going to a Day of the Dead celebration Saturday, though, so I hope to get some skeletons for my house!

  13. Nice post and nice graphic gravatar. A former Eurythmy student in Dornach, Switzerland, I vaguely recall a discussion of “communicating with the dead”. Part of the eurythmy training included meeting at the cemetery to commune with the dead. I studied for two years and did not participate in that particular feat. A Japanese colleague/eurythmy student and Buddhist Shinnyo-en activist, informed me of the Shinnyo-en practice of communicating with dead spirits. The Shinnyo-en belief is to acknowledge the grief of the one who has passed in order to assuage hardships of future generations. I am reminded of the celebratory funeral trumpet playing when a soul passes in Louisiana.

    I truly respect the Mexican tradition of Dia de les Muertos, embracing death as part of life. How intimate, warm, amd calming to continue a connenction with a loved one who has crossed over.

    Shifting back to October 31, 1994, I remember carving the Jack o’ Lantern pumpkin for our daughter in this small Alsacian village of France. Folk started calling me “Sorciére!”(Witch)-Needless to say, they weren’t celebrating Halloween back then:-) Now, it has become as popular as Christmas. Our daughter is now 21 and out of the house, but my Jack O’Lantern is already perched on the window sill. For the Halloween party invitation, I will warmly go as my beloved grandmother, Mildred, and take along her favorite pumpkin pie. Thank you for sharing!

      • In Calabria, Italy too. While shopping in the town last summer, I wore a black hat. A small young girl passed with her Mom and asked, “Mama, Chi e?” (Mama, who is that?)The Mom responded, “Strega negra”(black witch)..It wasn’t Halloween! How funny, the Mom’s reaction, when she realized I understood her. When I asked her why she told her daughter that I am a “strega negra”, she responded, “‘ No, no, senora…… stra-a-a-a-nger… I said, you are a stra-a-a-a-nger'” and she rushed her daughter along…..

      • Hahaha … I love this story. I got a lot of weird looks in Italy, too–everyone knew I was an American. Never got called a witch, but being called a witch is possibly better than being called a lot of other things. Great story 🙂

  14. I’m a Mexican living far away from home (in Canada) and I loved your post. It tugged at my heart because I miss these things so much.

    If you like Frida Kahlo, search for a book called Las Fiestas de Frida y Diego (I dunno if they have it in English?) It was written by Diego Rivera’s daughter that lived with him and Frida for a while, so she talks a lot about details of life with them– anecdotes, recipes and photographs. Even just for the photography, the book is so worth it.

    Thanks for writing this!

  15. I always thought that was an interesting holiday. And I’m surprised I can’t think of more holidays where people remember their dead relatives. Whatever your beliefs, it’s always good to remember those who are gone.
    I must take some time to think about my dear dead fish, Imhotep. May he rest in peace in that pond. And I hope his remains weren’t eaten, though they probably were.

  16. Painted skull and skeleton figurines portraying death can be seen throughout Mexico and in shops with Mexican handicrafts. Although these figurines may conjure up scary images like those of Halloween, these death-like figurines are symbols of Mexico and Latin America’s Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) holiday, which celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away.

    All Hallows Eve vs. Dia de Los Muertos | Differences:
    http://www.haciendatresrios.com/special-occasions/all-hallows-eve-dia-de-los-muertos-differences/

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  21. The best dia de los muertos celebration in happening right now in patzcuaro, morelia-Mex. it is the most traditional celebration in all of mexico…people from all over the world go to see it!!
    feliz dia de los muertos

  22. Pingback: Es el Día de los Muertos!

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