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Day of the Dead: The Holiday and Traditions, Explained

Before the dawn of Christianity, pagan worshippers in Ireland and England celebrated the coming winter solstice with a holiday called Samhain, commemorated between October 31 and November 2. On the Celtic calendar, the days marked the death of the growing season, and, by extension, became a time to reflect on death. Pagans believed that on these days, local burial mounds transformed into portals to the otherworld to allow spirits of the dead to walk among the living.

With the rise of Roman Catholicism, church leaders would later attempt to absorb and replace this holiday; the result would be three different festival days: Halloween (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2). All Saints’ Day, also known as the Feast of all Saints, honors all saints of the church, while All Souls’ Day commemorates the departed.

As Catholicism spread across the globe, these holidays came into contact with various cultures, leading to a diverse array of traditions and customs, most notably, combining the celebrations for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days into what is widely known as the Day of the Dead. Here’s a look at how several nations celebrate the Day of the Dead, most commonly acknowledged on November 1.

Poland: Candles Light Up the Night Sky

Candle lights on graves and tombstones in cemetery at night in Poland on All Saints’ Day.
Credit: Piotr Milewski/ Shutterstock

In the year 837, Pope Gregory IV authorized All Saints’ Day as an official festival day. Over the centuries, as church doctrine developed, the date became a special occasion to remember, and pray for, the souls trapped in purgatory. Today, in Poland, they take that responsibility seriously. From big cities to small towns, people flock to local cemeteries where their loved ones are buried, covering their graves with dozens — and sometimes hundreds — of candles. As darkness falls on, cemeteries emit a dazzling display of light, causing the night’s sky to glow orange.

Portugal: Bread for the Living

Orange chrysanthemum flowers.
Credit: Tatyana Azarova/ iStock

Like Poland, All Saints’ Day is a national holiday in Portugal, as revelers visit the family cemetery to decorate the graves. But in addition to candles, there are flowers — lots of them. Tombstones are ritually adorned with bouquets of chrysanthemums, which are traditionally viewed as symbols of comfort and bereavement.  But that’s not all. Portuguese celebrations also include a Halloween-esque custom where children knock on doors asking for "pão por Deus,” or “bread for God.” This medieval custom is called “souling,” a form of ritual begging where the poor ask their neighbors for help. Today, children typically receive a small traditional sweet bread, called “soul cake.”

Spain: Bread for the Dead

An actor kneeling in front of a sitting actress in a performance of Don Juan Tenorio.
Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

In Spain, the “pan de ánimas,” or spirit bread, is left on graves, along with traditional candles and flowers. The belief is that the souls had a long journey on their visit home and needed sustenance. More recently, it’s become tradition for Spanish theatres to perform Don Juan Tenorio, a play about a young nobleman. In the same way that Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet has become a Christmas staple in America, Don Juan Tenorio is now a Spanish mainstay every November 1.

Mexico: Masks and Altars

Group of women wearing traditional sugar skull masks and costumes for Dia de los Muertos celebration.
Credit: Moab Republic/ Shutterstock

When Spanish conquistadors brought Catholic traditions to Mexico, the customs quickly merged with Aztec traditions to become “el Día de los Muertos.” Spread over two days, November 1 is usually a more somber festival, a day to remember children who died. Meanwhile, November 2 is far more joyous and colorful: A celebration where revelers don skull masks and skeleton costumes and make “ofrendas,” which are small altars of food and drinks as offerings to their dearly departed. (“El Día de los Muertos” is lovingly depicted in the recent, beloved Pixar film Coco.)

Philippines: Marathon Picnics

Filipino cemetery crowded with people.
Credit: Dondi Tawatao via Getty Images

Like Mexico, the Philippines were colonized by Spain during the 16th century, which brought Catholic customs ashore. And like the rest of the countries on this list, Filipinos celebrate All Saints’ Day — or “Undas” — by visiting graves and laying flowers and candles. In fact, it’s one of the busiest travel days of the year, with millions of Filipinos returning home to celebrate, setting up picnics at the site of their loved ones’ graves. Many will spend all night beside the tomb, eating and drinking under the stars.