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Dia de los Muertos: A History of Day of the Dead Traditions and Costumes

There are plenty of similarities between Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. or the Day of the Dead. Some people occasionally even mistake them for the same holiday. While both Halloween and Day of the Dead are celebrations both centered around death, the roots of the celebrations differ a bit. Halloween originates from the Celtic festival of Samhain. The festival was held on October 31st and acted as the precursor to the Celtic New Year on November 1st. The Celtic people believed the boundaries between the living and spiritual realms were weakened during this time, which allowed spirits to cross between the realms. Eventually, the holiday was adopted by the Catholic Church. The celebration was given the new moniker "All-Hallows" Eve, which gradually shorted to Halloween.

The Day of the Dead celebration begins on October 31st and continues through November 2nd. Celebrators of this holiday also believe that during this time the boundaries between realms are open for spirits to cross between them. During the original celebrations of Halloween people wore costumes and caused a raccous to scare away the dead. However, Day of the Dead celebrators implore these same elements in order to welcome the spirits of their deceased.


The Day of the Dead can be traced back to the ancient Aztec celebration Festival of the Dead. Originally spanning two months, the festival was watched over by the Goddess of the Dead. The Aztecs believed her realm was peaceful until the souls crossed over for the celebration, during which time the realm became lively. When Christianity was introduced to the Aztec culture, much like Samhain, the festival was changed. The celebration was shortened drastically and merged with All-Hallow's Eve as well as All-Saints Day on November 1st. The celebration continues through November 2nd, the day known as All Souls Day to Christians.

According to tradition, November 1st is the day people celebrate the souls of children in their families who passed away before adulthood. The souls of adults are celebrated the following day. Much of the modern celebration bears resemblance to the Aztec traditions. The Aztecs built altars filled with offerings for the souls. Today people build altars in their homes, or the cemetery, to celebrate their loved ones. Modern altars still include offerings generally comprised of food, pictures, and calaveras (sugar skulls). The sugar skulls and pictures replace the ancient tradition of digging up a loved ones bones, cleaning them, and painting them in bright colors and patterns. Music also plays an important role during the celebration.

Cultural Significance

As previously stated, some believe that Day of the Dead is just the Mexican version of Halloween. This is owed in part to the holiday growing in its worldwide prominence, as well as to a partial understanding of what the holiday represents.Nowadays, Halloween is generally regarded as a time for costumes and candy. Many do not know of, or no longer hold, the ancient beliefs that began the holiday. However, the Day of the Dead celebration is still an important cultural fixture in Mexico and Latino communities.The celebrators believe that during the celebration the spirits of their loved ones have returned to be with them in the realm of the living. The entire event is a celebration of life. People are celebrating the lives of their loved ones, their own lives, and the continuous cycle of life and death for all things. For these people it is much more than costumes and food. It's a way to honor those they wish were still with them.

Outfits and Traditions

Day of the Dead celebrators often wear brightly colored clothing. Originally, the clothes had the appearance of a more traditional folk costume. Nowadays those traditional costumes are being replaced more with modern elements. Calaveras are an important piece of the traditions. The sugar skulls are meant to represent the bones of a loved one. However, people also paint their faces to look like the sugar skulls too. This is done in a effort to help welcome the dead and encourage them to join in the celebrations. Sometimes celebrators only paint half of their face in skull makeup . This is done to symbolize the duality of the celebration, to represent both life and death.

Food is a very important tradition. Often people will leave out a loved one's favorite foods so their spirit can enjoy them while they are in the mortal realm. However, Pane de los Muertos (Bread of the Dead) and tamales are also popular food offerings. Music and dancing feature prominently the celebrations. Some play the favorite songs of their deceased, while others just listen to mariachi bands. Regardless of their choice, all embrace music and dancing as a way to celebrate the lives of the loved ones they are remembering.

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