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How to Understand the History and Origins of the Day of the Dead

The festival of the Day of the Dead dates from pre-Columbian times. Understand the origins and its history since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.


  • Step 1: Erect altars with Christian crosses and statues, adding pictures of deceased relatives or the Virgin Mary. Gather trinkets, candles, keepsakes, toys, and even bottles of tequila as offerings to prepare in the last days of October.
  • Step 2: Clean and decorate graves and sit on picnic blankets next to grave sites, eating the favorite foods of the deceased loved ones. Bring pillows and blankets for the deceased to rest on after their journey.
  • FACT: Two consecutive 20-day months on the Aztec calendar are reserved for the Feast of the Little Dead Ones and the Feast of the Adult Dead.
  • TIP: Eat other holiday foods, like sweet bread called _pan de muertos_.
  • Step 3: Place the skulls on decorated altars for the dead, imprinting each skull across the forehead with the name of a dead person. Sugar skulls can be eaten by the dead's relative or friend.
  • Step 4: Understand that the Spanish Conquistadors thought the Day of the Dead was sacrilegious. To make it more Christian, they moved the dates of the celebration days to coincide with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, the first two days of November.
  • Step 5: Wear wooden skull masks in Day of the Dead celebrations and dance in honor of the deceased. Create cheerful skeleton renderings for the big occasion, the figures working and playing as they would if they were living people. Depict your skeletons with papier-mache, ceramics, cardboard, or puppetry.
  • Step 6: Learn about pre-Columbian Aztec rituals honoring the memory of deceased ancestors, when entire regions once prepared all year for the great festival. Aztecs used skulls to symbolize death and rebirth, symbols that are still associated with the holiday.

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