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Dia de los Muertos History

To study Dia de los Muertos history is to step back in time 4000 years. These days we think of Dia de los Muertos as a "Mexican holiday", but the origins of the Day of the Dead can actually be traced back several millennia before Mexico even existed as a country.

gravestone shaped like tzompantliGravestone in shape of Aztec skull rack
Photo © Thelmadatter

Are you ready to jump back in time?

The Spanish invaded Mexico in 1519 - but we need to step back even further to understand Dia de los Muertos history.

Before the Spanish invasion, many indigenous cultures rose and fell in the land now known as Mexico: the Olmecs, the Mayans, and the Aztecs were just some of these Mesoamerican civilizations that flourished for nearly 40 centuries.

Now that's a long time!

Although there were several different civilizations rising and falling over those 4000 years, they all shared a common thread: a belief in the afterlife. When people died, they didn't cease to exist – instead, their soul carried on to the afterworld.

The belief in the cyclical nature of life and death resulted in a celebration of death, rather than a fear of death. Death was simply a continuance of life, just on another plane of existence. Dia de los Muertos history can be traced back to these indigenous beliefs of the afterlife.

Once a year the Aztecs held a festival celebrating the death of their ancestors, while honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld, or Lady of the Dead. The Aztecs believed that the deceased preferred to be celebrated, rather than mourned, so during the festival they first honored los angelitos, the deceased children, then those who passed away as adults. The Mictecacihuatl festival lasted for an entire month, starting around the end of July to mid-August (the 9th month on the Aztec calendar), during the time of corn harvests.

Aztec sun calendarAztec sun calendar

After the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in 1521, they tried to make the Aztecs adopt their Catholic beliefs. They didn't understand the Aztec belief system and didn't try to. As Catholics, they thought that the Aztecs were pagan barbarians and tried their best to squash the old Aztec rituals and fully convert the indigenous people over to their Catholic beliefs… but they failed.

Catrina, Lady of the DeadStatue of Catrina,
Lady of the Dead
Photo credit

What they accomplished was more like a compromise; a blend of beliefs. The Spanish conquerors succeeding in shortening the length of the Mictecacihuatl festival to two days that conveniently corresponded with two of their own Catholic holidays: All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, which take place on November 1 and 2 of each year.

This change was a key point in Dia de los Muertos history.

The Spanish convinced the indigenous people to attend special masses on those two days to commemorate the dead, as they tried to shift the original Dia de los Muertos history and meaning to suit their own Catholic purpose. However, the native folk customs and traditions prevailed. Over the centuries, these traditions transformed into the present Day of the Dead, bestowing Dia de los Muertos with the color, flavor, and fervor that has made it a world-famous holiday.

Even the old Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuatl found a new identity as the modern "Catrina" – the lanky, skeletal female figure (shown left) bedecked in sumptuous clothing and giant ornate hats, who serves as a reminder that death is a fate that even the rich can't avoid.

What next?

As a holiday, Day of the Dead continues to evolve. With the spread of Mexicans into other countries, such as the US and Canada, many more communities are adopting the Day of the Dead, so that it now contains even more multicultural overtones. Thanks to the Internet, many more people are able to learn about this holiday and celebrate Day of the Dead in their own way, inspired by Mexican traditions.

This brief study of Dia de los Muertos history shows the transformation and adaptability of Mexico's most famous national holiday. A glimpse into Dia de los Muertos history shows how the holiday has survived throughout centuries of changes, which perhaps stands as proof of the holiday's cultural, and personal, importance.

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