On November 1 and 2, immediately following the spooky mischief of Halloween and Samhain, Mexico celebrates El Día de los Muertos, and on November 2 the Catholic world celebrates All Souls’ Day. Unlike the October 31 festivities, these two holidays have a very serious component: the honoring of deceased friends and family.
Catholics across the world observe All Souls’ Day. Traditionally, this is the day when sinful souls trapped in Purgatory are sanctified through prayer and can thus enter the celestial paradise of heaven. The date and rituals of All Souls’ Day were first established by the Catholic abbot St. Odilo of Cluny in the year 998 CE.
The Day of the Dead, as it is celebrated in modern Mexico, owes its identity to a number of major cultural influences. Long before the Spaniards ever set foot in Mesoamerica, the ancient Aztecs held a festival around this time of the year that they dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld.
According to tradition, this grim goddess watched over the bones of the dead and swallowed the stars during the daytime. Then, when the Catholic Europeans came, they introduced the natives to the tradition of All Souls’ Day, and the two cultural events fused to create the Day of the Dead. Today, Mexicans celebrate El Día de los Muertos with extravagant parades, festivals, special baked goods, and trips to the cemeteries to pay homage to the spirits of the dead.