By Logan Ward and Caitlin Etherton
It should go without saying: Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween.
Where Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities unfold in an explosion of color and joy, demonstrating love and respect for deceased family members.
In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones.
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Photograph by Edgard Garrido, Reuters
The festival originated several thousand years ago with Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful and viewed death as a natural phase in life’s long continuum.
The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to earth.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RAUL TOUZON, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Modern celebrations combine pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts, taking place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, near the time of the fall maize harvest.
In 2008, UNESCO recognized the holiday’s importance, naming it an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Today, Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos—but at its core, the holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TINO SORIANO, Nat Geo Image Collection
Celebrations center on an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries to welcome returning spirits with offerings of food, drinks, family photos, and candles.
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Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical sweet bread, often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEJANDRO MUÑOZ, ALAMY
Aztecs used marigolds to heal those struck by lightning and protect travelers crossing rivers. The flowers decorate ofrendas, and their petals are scattered to guide wandering souls from the altars back to their place of rest.
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Calavera can refer to colorful sugar skulls—or to short, biting poems popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Often sarcastic epitaphs that mocked the living, these literary calaveras are still printed in newspapers and broadcast on TV and radio programs.
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In the early 1900s, political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada created a personification of death in fancy French garb to comment on Mexican society’s emulation of European sophistication.
Diego Rivera later reimagined Posada’s calavera as a woman named Catrina (slang for “rich”)—now the holiday’s most ubiquitous symbol.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rebecca Blackwell, AP
Day of the Dead is a social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours.
People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, donning fancy suits and gowns to mimic the calavera Catrina.
Día de los Muertos is more popular than ever—in Mexico and, increasingly, abroad.
Sumpango, Guatemala, celebrates Día de los Muertos with a giant kite festival. Some kites are more than 60 feet tall.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCY BROWN, GETTY IMAGES
In Bolivia, foods offered to the spirits include coca leaves, llama meat, and chicha, a fermented corn drink.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Juan Karita, AP
Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Los Angeles, hosts the largest Día de los Muertos celebration outside of Mexico.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DOTAN SAGUY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT
PHOTOGRAPH BY NACHO CALONGE, ALAMY
Wherever it’s celebrated, Día de los Muertos reminds the living that our ties to the dead are ever-present.
“Todos somos calaveras,” goes the popular saying. “We are all skeletons.”