Day of the Dead: How the Ancient Holiday Found New Life with Social Media

It's a good day for the skull emoji.

The Day of the Dead Google Doodle that appeared on Friday is more like Google sculpture, with a 3D depiction marking the Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos): Candles illuminate an ofrenda, or altar, populated with colorful clay skulls. Families set up these holiday staples as a reminder that death is a normal part of life — at Google, doodler Nate Swinehart did the honors.

In the age of the internet and social media, Day of the Dead celebrations have been given a new platform on which to evolve from their ancient beginnings, while still keeping with with core traditions that partly comprise the holiday’s true spirit.

The celebration is rooted in a month-long ritual that dates back to about 3,000 years ago, which the Aztecs used to pay respect to the gods of the underworld. After Spanish conquistadors arrived with a mission to spread Catholicism, the holiday was melded with Catholic traditions, condensed into a single day aligned with All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2).

The Google Doodle honoring the Day of the Dead, published on November 2, 2018. Although blue and green aren't the most traditional colors used, red represents blood, while yellow represents light. 


In modern day, Day of the Dead celebrations overtake the streets in Latin America, where participants show off rich and colorful decorations in parades. As graveyards are often community or church owned, families also often visit and clean grave sites, decorating the resting places of their loved ones with flowers, food, and candles.

White represents purity and hope. Family members who visit and decorate graves often stay to tell stories, eat, and drink at the site. 

Steve Zimmerman, Flickr

Across the border, graveyards in the US are often privately owned and maintained. In turn, the Latin American and Mexican immigrants in the US have leaned into a different tradition — building altars in homes.

Like the Google Doodle, these altars are often decorated with candles and marigolds, as the scent is thought to encourage the dead to visit home. Plentiful food and drink, like sweet Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead, spirits need their carbs too) are left at the altar, prepared for the dead to recover after their long journey. Photos of the loved ones add a personal touch.

Day of the Dead Goes Digital

In a digital age, the holiday has made its traditional bright colors more visible than ever. You don’t have to visit Latin America to see stunning skull face paint, as parade-goers and makeup artists alike post their elaborate labors of love for all to see on social media. It’s a big day for the skull emoji.

Amidst posts of Day of the Dead cookies and delicate calaveras (sugar skulls), location tags reveal how unsuccessful those early attempts on the part of conquistadors to quash the holiday really were. Traditional Day of the Dead pastries can now be purchased in bakeries and restaurants from Canada to Paris.

But with wider exposure comes the tension of staying spiritually true to the traditional holiday, a concern that exhibit developer Marco Albarran from Arizona State University expresses.

“Just go to the 99 cents store,” Albarran tells The Arizona Republic. “You’re going to see Dia de Los Muertos mixed in with Halloween. And then you go to a festival, and you look at Dia de Los Muertos art and it’s made in China? That’s not right.”

Although the holiday inevitably evolves, whether celebrations take place in a graveyard or through a hashtag, the core message remains the same: life, while brief, is meant to be celebrated.

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