In towns across Mexico and Central America, people are celebrating Día de los Muertos or, in English, the Day of the Dead. It’s Mexico’s most popular national holiday and has become well-known in the United States among Mexican-Americans and hipsters in Brooklyn that eagerly latch on to anything unique. You might even remember learning about Día de los Muertos in your Spanish class — but did you know that Americans have been calling it by the wrong name for years? Or that the origin of the tradition is from before the Spanish even set foot in North America?
Test your knowledge with these 5 facts that you may not know about Día de los Muertos:
1. It’s not really called Día de los Muertos
The actual name in Spanish is Día de Muertos. Of course, saying that it’s “Dead Day” in English would sound a bit off, so linguistic license was taken to translate it into “Day of the Dead”. Many people, remembering the Mexican origins of the holiday, translate it back into Spanish as Día de los Muertos. This back and forth is known as a back-translation and, while it may sound correct, it’s totally not.
2. It’s actually 2 days
Perhaps the best name for the holiday would be Los Días de Muertos because it starts on November 1st and doesn’t end until the evening of November 2nd. This is by design and allows for a day to celebrate los angelitos (little angels), the souls of children that have passed away, and another day to celebrate the adults. In fact, November 1st is referred to as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) and November 2nd is known as Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased).
3. It’s not meant to be scary
We get it – we’ve used words like ‘deceased’ and ‘dead’ more than a study abroad blog ever should, but the truth is that Día de Muertos isn’t supposed to be sad or scary. After all, it’s a celebration! A time for family and friends to come together to pray for and support their deceased loved ones in their journey through the afterlife. The hope is that families will be visited by the souls of their loved ones (again, this is not supposed to be scary). The souls can then hear the prayers for them and get caught up on anything new that’s happened with the family! Celebrations often have a humorous tone, with living family members sharing funny events and anecdotes about the deceased.
4. It’s a true mezcla of Pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions
Rituals commemorating the deaths of ancestors had been popular in the cultures of Mesoamerica, like the Aztecs and Mayas, for thousands of years. In the time of the Aztecs, the festival lasted an entire month and was dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead” (pictured above). Over centuries of Spanish colonization and influence, ancient traditions mixed with the worldwide Catholic celebration of All Saints’ Day – where families visit the graves of relatives to honor them – creating the Día de Muertos celebration that we know today.
On a side note, we find the mezcla between Mesoamerican and European cultures to be one of the fascinating things about Mexican culture. One of the cities where this mix is most apparent is Santiago de Querétaro, one of SPI’s featured high school Spanish immersion destinations for 2017. Visiting Querétaro is a must for those interested in this enchanting culture. Ok, back to the list…
5. It’s officially an intangible cultural heritage of humanity
In 2008, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), officially added Día de Muertos to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – alongside cultural hallmarks like the scissors dance and Chinese calligraphy.
So it’s official, Día de Muertos is kind of a big deal. While Day of the Dead customs in Mexico change a little from town to town, one common thread of those celebrating is the combination of loss and introspection with the joy of fond memories and the belief that those that have passed are never truly gone – something we can all take comfort in!