Dia de Muertos IS NOT Halloween

Death burns the lips of other cultures, but the Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. Octavio Paz

Day of the Dead IS NOT (and has nothing to do with) Halloween. Halloween (which is rooted in Samhain) is celebrated on the eve of 31st of October and ends on the 1st of November.  Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year and a time of year that was often associated with human death. It was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth at this time as the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead were thinnest.

Halloween evolved from a syncretism of the Roman tradition of Feralia (an ancient festival celebrating spirits of the dead, particularly the souls of deceased individuals) after they had conquered the Celts and folded their practices into their own culture (as they had a tendency to do) and (several centuries later) when Christian Popes blended these Pagan traditions with the celebration of saints and martyrs called All Saints Day. This celebration (also called All Hallows Eve) was held the night before Samhain.

All of these traditions soon amalgamated into the event now known as Halloween in the cultural chaos that is the United States of America.

In Mexican tradition when someone died they had to journey into the land of the dead Mictlan. They were required to undergo a series of trials to reach the peace of the afterlife (and were generally guided through) the journey by a dog.

Image courtesy of Molina de Letras

The xoloitzcuintle (xoloitzcuintli) dog native to México. Various legends surround this dog. It is said that the Xolo is an incarnation of the god Xólotl (the twin brother of Quetzalcoatl and who also at one stage spent some time as a water dog, more commonly known as an axolotl). It was believed that xolos were the only animals that could guide the deceased through the arduous journey along the road that led to Mictlan.  Not all xoloitzcuintles served as guides for the dead. Only those with completely dark skin served this purpose as it was said that those who had spots had already served other souls in the underworld

Xolotl, Codex Fejervary-Mayer, 15th century, author unknown

Not all those who died underwent this journey. Some, such as warriors who died in battle or women who died in childbirth, went to reside in the House of the Sun and those who died by drowning or being struck by lightning went to Tlālōcān ruled by the God Tlaloc. All in all there were 13 levels of heaven and 9 levels of the underworld (Mictlan).
Death occurred in three stages
The three deaths.

  1. When you physically die
  2. When your body is interred in the earth
  3. (and the worst one of all) When you are no longer remembered

The most commonly celebrated dates for Dia de Muertos are the 1st and 2nd of November……These dates are not the original dates for the traditional events as observed by prehispanic peoples (totally discounting that they used a completely different calendar/s)(1) but much like the way that Christians and the Romans before them (and the Mexica too) bought their pagan subjects to heel, the observances of the Mexican peoples were melded with those of the invaders as a method of controlling the populace.

  1. The Aztecs observed two twenty day fiestas in remembrance of the deceased. The first (calendrically speaking) was Miccailhuitontli (the Feast to the Revered Deceased of the Feast of the Small Dead Ones) honoured deceased children. Various dates have been put forward for this event July 12-31 (Gregorian calendar) and August 8-27 (Julian calendar) are two that I have come across
  2. The second 20-day festival, Huey Miccailhuitontli (Feast to the Greatly Revered Deceased or the Feast of the Great Dead Ones) honoured deceased adults and was potentially celebrated from August 1-20 (Gregorian) or August 28 to September 16 (Julian)

Dates of observance as of today.

November the 1st – “el Dia de los innocents” – remembering children who have passed, the angelitos (little angels)
November the 2nd – Dia de Muertos

But there are other dates involved in this tradition…..
October 28: we receive those who died suddenly or because of an accident.
October 29: on this day those who have drowned visit us.
October 30: on this day those who have no family to remember them walk amongst us. These are the spirits who do not have an ofrenda set out for them.
October 31: those whose souls dwell in limbo visit us. Limbo is the border place between heaven and hell where dwell those souls who, though not condemned to punishment, are deprived of the joy of eternal existence with God in heaven.

From a naturopathic point of view the time of Dia de Muertos can be a time of great healing. These days can be used to reflect upon those who have passed in a manner that can assuage the grief of loss. Grieving occurs in a series of stages and blocked emotions may prevent progress though the processes of grief. Dia de Muertos offers an opportunity to work on these blocked emotions. We get to share time in a spiritual way with those we have lost. This can occur on both a personal level by the creation of an ofrenda in the home that honours the memory of loved ones and in a collective setting by the coming together of a community of peoples to celebrate life.

There are several key traditional practices and images surrounding Dia de Muertos. Probably the most principal one is the creation of an altar and the custom of ofrendas.

The Ofrenda as depicted by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera

Altars (which are often called ofrendas) are constructed in peoples homes, public spaces and in graveyards. Ofrendas are set up to remember and honour the memory of those who have passed. Photos of the people being honoured are displayed. Those set up in the home usually revolve around the family while those in public spaces often honour the memories of the famous. In 2017 Mexico City dedicated public ofrendas to all those who died in the September 19 earthquakes.

Ofrendas can be grandiose affairs

Gabriel Perez / Getty Images

Or something a little more simple and reflective of its indigenous roots.

This is my favourite one
(Image taken from “Day of the Dead Crafts” by K. Arquette, A. Zocchi & J. Vigil 2008)

Some of the most beautiful ones are created by the graves of the departed in village cemeteries. Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán is renowned for its ofrendas and the graveyard vigils held for Dia de Muertos.

Image courtesy of Michoacán Travel

On the altar are placed the ofrendas (offerings). These usually consist of the favourite foods of the people being honoured (common foods include tamales, mole, atole, pan de Muerto), their vices (cigarettes, tequila, mezcal), a treasured item and, in the case of children, their favourite toys.
The altars are decorated with the cempasuchil (cempoalxochitl) flower. This golden flower of the marigold family is said to have a scent which attracts the spirits of the deceased and they can find their way to the ofrenda by following the path laid out for them which has been illuminated by the flowers petals.

These flowers can also be an integral part of the arch that crowns more traditional altars. This arch is representative of the portal into the underworld and the passage taken between life and death.

Ofrenda created by FOMEX for the staff and students at Curtin University in Western Australia

The altar is usually constructed in 2, 3 or more (7) stepped levels (somewhat reminiscent of a Mesoamerican pyramid) with each level having different significance. The topmost level (generally speaking) is where the images of Saints or a crucifix are set. The next level down is where candles and photos dedicated to the departed are placed and the lower level is where food, drinks, toys and other elements of the offerings are placed. A 2 level altar represents the division between the earth and the sky, the fruits of the land and the elements of the air, rain, wind, and sunshine. From an Aztec viewpoint altars with three levels represent the sky, the earth and the underworld this has changed with the intervention of Christianity and the three level altar potentially represents hell, heaven and earth or the Holy Trinity. Altars with seven levels commonly and relate to the seven levels that a soul must traverse before reaching their appropriate place in the heaven or possibly the trials presented by the Seven Deadly Sins.

The four main elements of nature are represented on the altar.
Candles are set upon the altar. Each candle represents the soul of a particular deceased person and their visiting souls are illuminated from the shadow of death by its gently flickering light. The light of the candle will also guide the spirits into the land of the living. Additional candles can be set out for forgotten souls. Four large candles may be set so as to represent the four cardinal points.
Wind is represented by papel picado (papel – paper / picado – finely cut). This is a hold over tradition from prehispanic times when various Mesoamerican cultures made cut paper offerings of amatl (amate – paper made from the bark of a type of fig tree) to their gods. Papel picado is now made from tissue paper (or nowadays plastic). It is an ephemeral form of art that that represents the wind and the fragility of life. Its movement signifies the arrival of spirits. The skeleton is a popular image during Dia de Muertos and they are often depicted in papel picado dancing, partying or performing every day work tasks demonstrating the ever present spectre of the death that resides within us all. For Dia de Muertos papel picado is typically either purple or yellow.

This can represented by a dish of salt. Salt acts to cleanse the spirits and purify their souls during the coming year and to prevent them being corrupted by earthly temptations. Sometimes the earth is represented by the sugar which is used atop the pan dulce (sweet bread) known as pan de Muerto (bread of the dead). The sugar is said to represent the soil we are buried in after death. Sugar is also in some stories said to represent blood. More on this later.
An offering of water is set upon the altar so that the visiting souls are able to quench the thirst created during their long trip from the underworld. Water has links to Chaac (Chac) and Tlaloc who are Mayan and Aztec Gods of rain and water.

Calaveras (skulls) and skeletons are popular images during this time. Some of the most common images of skeletons performing everyday tasks and the ever popular image of a well-to-do woman known as La Catarina were created by the artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Skeletons can be represented in papel picado, clay models, alfeniques (a sweet treat made from sugar paste) such as sugar skulls or as is becoming more popular these days by the sticky puffed amaranth seed treat known as alegria (happiness/joy). Alegria skulls are a relic of the ancient Mesoamerican tradition of tzoalli. (See Post on Amaranth and the Tzoalli Heresy)

Skulls created with popped amaranth seed
Sugar skulls. These are placed on the ofrenda and given as gifts to children, often with their names written on them.
By Cesarachp – Own work
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22558166

La Catrina is also a popular subject for costumes during this period

Interpretations of La Catarina by the daughters of FOMEX

Another tradition is the Bread of the Dead or Pan de Muerto. This sweet bread is set upon the ofrenda and I have to admit is one of my favourite foods on the day (although I will not say no to tamales or mole either). It can be a buttery, crumbly, cake like bread quite similar to brioche and I particularly like the ones flavoured with orange zest and anise seed.

There is a legend of a ritual performed in Mesoamerica that is said to be the locus of the birth of Pan de Muerto. One particular sacrificial ritual required that the heart of a princess (in one story it is the heart of a virgin) was placed in a clay pot with amaranth (in some stories the pot is buried). Part of the rite involved the ritual leader taking a bite the heart, as a sign of gratitude to the Gods. This, along with all other sacrificial practices, was outlawed by the Spanish and in its stead arose the tradition of the Pan de Muerto (which in some stories used red sugar to represent the blood present in the rituals of the old ways). Another prehispanic story involves the creation of a dough heart which represented the heart of a God (probably Huitzilopochtli) that was broken up and distributed to the people as an offering. (See Post on Amaranth and the Tzoalli Heresy)

Pan de Muerto is ripe with symbolism. The round shape of the bread is indicative of the circle of life. Atop the bread are placed four “bones” which represent the four cardinal points and each is said to further represent a prehispanic deity Tezcatlipoca (the lord of heaven and earth), Tláloc (supreme god of the rains), Quetzalcoatl (lord of the star of the dawn) and Xipetotec (god of spring). These bones are also sometimes said to represent tears. Crowning the loaf is a small ball of dough which represents the skull.

Although it is called a “traditional” dish and dates back to Pre-Hispanic times Pan de Muerto as we know it cannot have existed prior to the arrival of the Spanish simply because of the ingredients involved. Wheat flour, butter, cane sugar, orange blossom and anise seed are all imports. It is however more than possible that a version of it was made from amaranth seed dough in a vein similar to some varieties of tzoalli.

In 2003 Pan de Muerto was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The authors attempt at Pan de Muerto

Pan de Muerto Recipe


For the dough:

  • ¼ cup butter (60g)
  • ¼ cup milk (just over 60ml)
  • ¼ cup warm water
  • 3 cups Plain flour (sometimes called All Purpose Flour)
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons anise seed, whole or crushed
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 Tablespoon orange zest

For the glaze:

  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar


  1. Heat the milk and the butter in a medium sized sauce pan until the butter melts. Do not boil it. Remove the pan from the heat and then add the warm water.
  2. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of flour, the yeast, salt, anise seed, cinnamon and ¼ cup white sugar. Stir in the warm milk mixture. Then add the eggs and orange zest and mix until well blended. Stir in ½ cup of flour and continue adding flour until the dough is soft.
  3. Put the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead it until it is smooth and elastic.
  4. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size. This should take between 1 and 2 hours depending on how warm your kitchen is (will take longer at cool temperatures). Yeast likes it to be warm.
  5. When the dough has doubled its size knead it again briefly. Cut 3 small (about golf ball sized) balls from each half and mould them into bones shapes. Shape the dough into a round loaf and place the bones on top.
  6. Put the dough on a baking sheet and loosely cover with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place once more until it has doubled in size (maybe an hour).
  7. Bake the bread in an oven preheated to 175°C (350°F) for 35-45 minutes. Remove the bread from the oven and let it cool slightly before applying the glaze.
  8. To make the glaze, combine ¼ cup sugar and orange juice in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat for 2 minutes. Brush the glaze over the warm bread. Allow the bread to cool a little and sprinkle with white sugar.

This is but a small fraction of the rich symbolism that exists within Dia de Muertos. I have not mentioned copal, the Monarch butterflies, the traditional Pan de Muerto of Oaxaca and other indigenous areas, the Fiesta de los Diablos and so much more. Explore this tradition.

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