Day of the Dead Honors the Deceased

Holiday's Focus Different than Halloween's

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At first glance, the Mexican custom of the Día de Muertos — the Day of the Dead — may sound much like the U.S. custom of Halloween. After all, the celebration traditionally starts at midnight the night of Oct. 31, and the festivities are abundant in images related to death.

But the customs have different origins, and their attitudes toward death are different: In the typical Halloween festivities, which are of Celtic origin, death is something to be feared.

But in the Día de Muertos, death — or at least the memories of those who have died — is something to be celebrated. The Día de Muertos, which continues until Nov. 2, has become one of the biggest holidays in Mexico, and celebrations are becoming more common in areas of the United States with a large Hispanic population.

Its origins are distinctly Mexican: During the time of the Aztecs, a monthlong summer celebration was overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. After the Aztecs were conquered by Spain and Catholicism became the dominant religion, the customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints' Day.

Specifics of the celebration vary with region, but one of the most common customs is the making of elaborate altars to welcome departed spirits home. Vigils are held, and families often go to cemeteries to fix up the graves of their departed relatives.

Festivities also frequently include traditional foods such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead), which can conceal a miniature skeleton.

Here is a glossary of Spanish terms used in connection with the Day of the Dead:

  • los angelitos — literally, little angels; young children whose spirits return
  • la calaca — a skeleton figure representing death, similar to the Grim Reaper
  • el calavera — a reckless fellow
  • la calavera — skull
  • la calaverada — crazy, foolish behavior
  • el difunto — the departed
  • la hojaldra — a bread for the Day of the Dead
  • la ofrenda — an offering left for the souls of the dead
  • zempasúchitl — the traditional name for the yellow marigolds used to mark a pathway to the altar

Children's Books for Day of the Dead