Day of the Dead Holiday Celebrations: Mexico’s Culture and History

Next week, I’ll be traveling to Mexico to hold our annual Day of the Dead Photography Expedition in Oaxaca (we are filled this year and taking a wait list for next year).  The photography exhibition that opened at Duke University last week reminded me about why I love this time of year in Oaxaca.  Jenny Snead Williams, executive director of the Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South, wrote the following explanation about Mexico’s practice that we can learn from and appreciate.  Her text below accompanied the photographs taken by last year’s photography expedition participants.


Days of the Dead (also known as Day of the Dead) is a holiday period of primarily Mexican origin, which is also practiced in various other countries, including recently the United States of America.  The celebration includes a few days of intense preparations, followed by three days and two nights (Oct 31-Nov 2) of visitations with the deceased.

Photograph above by Cheryl Cross, Bowie, Maryland, 2011.

The holiday period is a sensory fiesta: eyes delight in the colorful sugar skulls, brightly colored papier mâché skeletons, and elegant catrinas (popular recreations of a rich woman’s skull with huge hat).  Band music accompanying street parades puts everyone in a festive mood, and children’s laughter fills the air. Dexterous young fingers spread colored sand onto two-dimensional sculptures; wrinkled hands grind ingredients for the mole (sauce of chili peppers, spices, nuts, and chocolate); and strong arms carry  overflowing truckloads of orange and yellow cempasuchil (marigolds) into markets, homes, and cemeteries. The fragrance of flowers mixes with the scent of freshly baked pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and copal incense.  Delicious beverages such as chocolate (hot chocolate) warm the children, and atole (a thick, sweet hominy-based drink served hot) warms the adults as they all help to keep the graveside vigil in the autumn night air.  (Mezcal, an alcoholic beverage produced mainly in Oaxaca from the maguey plant, helps warm a few adults as well!)  Most of all, people sense the presence of deceased loved ones, and are grateful that they have been able to satisfy them with appropriate offerings and prayers, while also enjoying the reunion of all family members living and deceased.


Photographs above left by Nick Eckert, above right by Norma Hawthorne, 2011.

Days of the Dead is one of the most, if not the most important celebration of the year in many rural areas, particularly in central and southern Mexico.  The origins are deeply rooted and complex, with some aspects of the celebration dating back thousands of years to Pre-Hispanic times.  Many Mesoamerican tribes viewed life and death as a continuum; others saw life as a dream, from which one could only awaken by death.  In Aztec mythology, life evolved from the physical bones of death itself.  When the Spaniards arrived, they brought Christianity and attempted to replace pagan religions by destroying temples, smashing sacred sculptures, and burning painted manuscripts and codices.  They introduced All Saints and All Souls days.  Eventually, the pagan gods were aligned with and then replaced by Catholic saints and Christian images (for example, alignment of the Aztec goddess Tonantzín with the Virgin of Guadalupe and conversion from the Aztec cross to the Christian cross).

Photograph above by Jenny Snead Williams, 2011.

Today’s celebrations contain elements from many origins.  There are wide variations of practice (including types of food and beverage, inclusion of specific dances and masses, and style of altars public and private) and even dates associated with Days of the Dead in Mexico, and even more so in other countries celebrating some version of the holiday.  Within these walls, we invite you to spend some time visiting villages in Oaxaca, Mexico as well as communities and classrooms across the United States of America as you join us in celebrating the DAYS OF THE DEAD.

Jenny Snead Williams                                                                                                                              Executive Director                                                                                                                              Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South

Note: Some of the 27 prints (approximately 20” x 24” high-quality canvas) from the exhibition are offered for sale, at a minimum suggested donation of $50.  Proceeds will go to the village of Teotitlan del Valle and Powe School ESL program in Durham, NC.  To see the selection of images available for sale, and to make a donation, contact Jenny Snead Williams.

Upcoming Photography Workshops:

Street Photography with Frank Hunter and Semana Santa–Easter Week Photography Workshop with Leah Sobsey



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