The Day of the Dead Comes to Life

by Renee Kray


Color. Festivities. Nostalgia. Death. One of these things is not typical in a pop culture movement.

But these are the exact ingredients in the latest fascination of pop culture: Dia De Los Muertos, also known as “Day of the Dead” or the “Sugar Skull” movement. Skulls painted with bright flowers and vibrant designs adorn everything from phone cases, toys, and home decor to clothing, jewelry, and famous images. The trend has become so popular that it even inspired a movie which was released on DVD in January: The Book of Life, about a man who journeys through the Sugar Skull afterlife to rejoin his beloved.

Fads rise and fall so quickly in modern culture it can be hard to keep track of their origins, but Dia De Los Muertos has had a long history leading up to its recent surge to fame. describes it as originally being an Aztec celebration observed throughout the entire month of August, when the Aztecs believed that the dead would come back to roam the earth. Observers of the ritual sacrificed to the goddess “Mictecacihuatl,” the Lady of Death, and used real human skulls in their festivities and dances.

This all changed when the Catholic Spaniards arrived and began their work of conversion. A festival celebrating a demon goddess of death was not something Catholics saw as safe to continue, but they did recognize the importance of the holiday to the Aztec people. So it was meshed into All Souls Day and the festivity was moved to the beginning of November, when it is still celebrated today.
The Dia De Los Muertos that we see today is heavily influenced by Catholic ideals, celebrating the dead instead of death itself. Observers spend the day remembering the lives of their dearly departed, a nod to the Aztec belief that the dead would roam the earth during the celebration. Attendees often paint half of their faces in the traditional colorful skull design, symbolizing death as being a part of life.

The rituals now are quite different from those used in the original Aztec celebrations. The day is commonly spent beautifying the graves of departed family members, with orange marigolds decorating the graves of adults and white orchids on those of children. Memorial altars for the deceased, featuring photographs and items they valued in life, have replaced the honors previously heaped on Lady Death. Rather than using real skulls, small skulls made of sugar and bright frosting serve as treats for the living or as memorial offerings; hence the origin of the “Sugar Skull” title.
Some critics maintain that Catholics attempted to stamp the celebration out altogether instead of change it. claims that Catholics were afraid of the observance because they believed death was the end while the holiday embraces it as a continuation of life. This is not true, as the actual Catholic view sees death being the beginning of our true, eternal lives with God. As we hear in the funeral incantations for a Christian burial: “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” This is why Dia De Los Muertos merged easily with the feast of All Souls: respecting the departed and celebrating their lives both with us on earth and with God in the afterlife is central to Catholicism.

Today, this Catholicized version of the holiday is celebrated in Mexico as well as in some areas in the United States, primarily in California. But with its recent launch into American pop culture, who knows whether or not we will be able to see it celebrated in a wider sphere. In any case, the sugar skulls and painted faces look like they will be here for a while, and projects such as The Book of Life movie continue to feed the movement. But regardless of where this fad goes in American pop culture, the modern celebration of Dia De Los Muertos as a memorial to the dead will always have roots in Catholic Theology.




photo credits:

Dia de los Muertos

First annual “Day of the Dead” celebration in Helena via photopin (license)

_MG_2997.jpg via photopin (license)

Cover image via photopin (license)

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