Día de Los Muertos: A Mexican Tradition


A Blend of the Old and the New

Día de los muertos is usually celebrated on November 2, which is also the Roman Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day. In some communities, the dead are remembered over several days, including November 1, All Saints’ Day.

Mexican Halloween?

coverotherNot exactly! Día de los muertos, is often mistaken for Mexican Halloween because it takes place around the same date. Actually, the celebration is a unique blend of ancient native beliefs and Spanish Catholic traditions.

An Important Link Between the Living and the Dead

The day of the dead reinforces the ancient belief that death is a part of life. It is an important tradition through which families pass on their oral histories to help keep these ancestors alive for future generations.



Many families prepare an elaborate altar, known as an ofrenda (offering), for the holiday. The ofrendas are created to welcome back the souls of departed family members and friends for a day. Families set up the ofrendas in their homes and in cemeteries, and decorate them with flowers, fruits, popular foods, sweets, drinks, and personal mementos of the person being remembered.

Cemetery Celebrations

Bringing food and music, families also visit the graves of their loved ones, often cleaning and decorating the headstones with flowers.

sweet skulls

Sweet Skull Treats

Special candies and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a sweet bread, are popular treats on Día de los muertos. They are served in the shape of skulls, skeletons, and other symbols of death.


These fun facts­—and much more—can be found in World Book Online.
Explore our recent post on the origins of Halloween!

Discover the Haunted History of Halloween with World Book Online!


Ancient Origins

  • Halloween developed from an ancient pagan festival celebrated by Celtic people over 2,000 years ago in the area that is now the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northwestern France.
  • The festival was called Samhain (pronounced SOW ehn), which means summer’s end. The festival marked the beginning of the dark winter season and was celebrated around November 1.
  • During Samhain, Celts believed that the barriers between the natural world and the supernatural were broken, and that the dead could walk among the living for just a little while.

From Samhain To Halloween

  • In the 800’s, the Christian church established a new holiday, All Saints’ Day, on November 1st. All Saints’ Day was also called All Hallows’. Hallow means saint, or one who is holy. The evening before All Hallows’ was known as All Hallows’ Eve, or as it came to be abbreviated, All Hallow e’en.
  • For centuries in Europe, people remembered the dead at All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 2) with bonfires.

Origins of the Jack-o’-Lantern

  • Although bonfires are less common on Halloween today, people still mark the night with candles burning in jack-o’-lanterns.
  • The jack-o’-lantern originally represented spirits present in the dark, or souls released from Christian purgatory.
  • According to an Irish legend, jack-o’-lanterns were named for a character named Jack, who could not enter heaven because he was a miserly, bad-tempered man. He could not get into hell either, because he had tricked the devil several times. As a result, Jack had to walk the earth forever with only a coal from hell to light his lantern.

American Traditions

By the late 1800’s, Americans celebrated this spooky holiday in a variety of ways:

  • In rural New Hampshire, people held barn dances for Halloween.
  • In New York City, Halloween parades and firecrackers were common aspects of the celebration.
  • In mountainous North Carolina, many thought Halloween was a time when people could hear the future whispered in the wind.
  • In Louisiana, it was tradition to cook a midnight dumb supper (which means a meal eaten without speaking) and watch for a ghost to join the table.

Halloween In Europe

  • In Ireland, objects, such as a coin, a ring, and a thimble, were baked into a cake or other food. It was believed that the person who found the coin would become wealthy. Whoever found the ring would marry soon, but the person who got the thimble would never get married.
  • In England, people went house-to-house souling—that is, asking for small breads called soul cakes in exchange for prayers.
  • In some areas of the United Kingdom and Ireland, people went mumming (parading in masks) on many holidays, including Halloween.

Warding Off the Spirits

People in Scotland and Ireland once carved out large beets or turnips to use as lanterns on Halloween. After this custom reached America, people began to use pumpkins.

Pumpkins: A New World Vegetable

Pumpkins probably originated in North America. Seeds from related plants dating back to 7000 to 5500 B.C. have been found in Mexico. Most pumpkins weigh between 5 to 30 pounds (2.3 to 14 kilograms). But some may weigh more than 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms)!

These fun facts­—and much more—can be found in World Book Online, your answer for fast, reliable information.

This Week in History: Archbishop Desmond Tutu was born on Oct. 7, 1931

People call him “the Arch.” He is Desmond Tutu, who served as the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, from 1986 to 1996. As archbishop, Tutu was the leader of the Anglican Church in southern Africa. He was the first black African to hold that post. In 1984, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was the strict and often brutal system of racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990’s. Tutu believed it was morally wrong and sought to end it by nonviolent means. He led the effort to convince foreign nations to push for change by imposing economic sanctions on South Africa. He called on both the supporters and the opponents of apartheid to find a peaceful way to end it.

Sometimes it takes courage to be a peacemaker. In 1985, the South African government banned large black funeral gatherings, which had sometimes turned into politically heated events. Tutu defied the ban. In August, hundreds of police officers and soldiers surrounded a gathering of about 1,000 funeral mourners. With military helicopters circling overhead, Tutu negotiated with the police for half an hour to avoid a violent encounter. A month earlier, he had waded into a mob of enraged black youths and kept them from killing a man whom they suspected of being an informer for the police. Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, once said of Tutu, “Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid, and seldom without humor, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”

It also takes understanding to be a peacemaker. Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on Oct. 7, 1931. He lived through the imposition of the apartheid system. He began his career as a teacher, but he left teaching in protest against laws purposely designed to give black students second-rate educations. He became an Anglican priest in 1961 and later was made a bishop. After the end of apartheid, he headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a South African panel that conducted hearings on suspected human rights abuses during apartheid. Tutu is known for his compassion. On more than one occasion during TRC testimony, he lowered his head on his hands and wept. Under Tutu’s leadership, the commission promoted healing, forgiveness, and national unity.

It takes hope to be a peacemaker. Tutu is famous for his joy and his marvelous laugh. He believes all people were “made for goodness,” and that we should search out the good at the true heart of every person. He believes all people are brothers and sisters, children of God. All, therefore, deserve honor and respect. For Tutu, this faith exists in harmony with the traditional African concept of ubuntu, which sees people as interdependent. An injustice to one diminishes all. To oppress one person diminishes the entire community, as does taking revenge on the oppressor. Tutu has said, “There is no peace without forgiveness.” Both in South Africa and in other nations that have experienced conflict or oppression, Tutu has worked to help people overcome hate and find peace.

Great Lives in Jazz


In honor of Thelonious Monk’s birthday this week (October 10), see if you can match some jazz greats to their dates of birth and accomplishments!

14 Facts About Christopher Columbus’s Life & Legacy from World Book Online



  1. A Holiday Is Born

Columbus Day was not declared a legal federal holiday until 1971. Now it’s celebrated on the second Monday of October. But before 1971, several states celebrated Columbus Day on October 12, the day that Columbus’s ship landed in the New World.

  1. Not the First

Columbus was NOT the first European to reach the Western Hemisphere. The Norse (also called the Vikings) had settled for a time on the coast of North America about A.D. 1000, but most Europeans of the 1400’s did not know about the settlement.

  1. Spice Is Nice

Columbus set out to reach the Indies—what are now India, China, the East Indies (southeastern Asia), and Japan. He hoped to gain direct access to gold, silk, gems, and spices. Cloves, nutmeg, and mace served as medicines as well as seasonings.

  1. His Map Man

A map of the world made by Ptolemy, an astronomer and geographer in Alexandria, Egypt, in the A.D. 100’s, might have been the basis for Columbus’s notions of geography. Ptolemy’s map showed most of the world as covered by land.

  1. Incorrect Calculations

Columbus’s plan was based in part on two major miscalculations.

1) He underestimated the circumference of the world by about 25 percent.

2) He believed that most of the world consisted of land rather than water.

  1. Years of Waiting

King Ferdinand of Spain placed Columbus’s proposal before his council, which rejected it. The council initially turned down his plan on the correct belief that he had greatly underestimated the length of the journey.

  1. Big Boats

Martín Alonso Pinzón, an experienced seafarer, captained the Pinta, a caravel with square-rigged sails that could carry about 53 long tons, the equivalent of almost 10 elephants! Columbus’s brother Vicente Yañez Pinzón captained the slightly smaller Niña. Columbus captained the third vessel, the Santa María.

  1. No Five-Star Dining

The sailors’ main meal consisted of a stew of salted meat or fish, hard biscuits, and watered wine. The sailors had no sleeping quarters, so they huddled on deck in good weather or found a spot below deck during storms.

  1. Gut Instincts

Columbus had few navigational instruments. He knew enough about celestial navigation to measure latitude by using the North Star. He used a compass to plot his course, estimated distances on a chart, relied on a half-hour glass to measure time, and guessed his speed.

10. Tough Crowd

After a month of smooth sailing, the crews became anxious that they had not yet reached the islands Columbus had led them to expect. They had not sighted land for longer than any other crew of that time!

11. Claiming the Prize

Between the evening of October 11 and the morning of October 12, a sailor on the Pinta named Juan Rodríguez Bermejo called out, “Land, land!” Isabella had offered a reward to the first person to sight land. However, Columbus said that he had seen a flickering light hours earlier, and he claimed the reward.

12. A Christmas Eve Surprise

The night of December 24, an exhausted Columbus gave the wheel of the Santa María to a sailor, who passed it to a cabin boy. The ship crashed and split apart on a reef near Cap-Haïtien, in present-day Haiti. Aided by a local chief, the crew built a makeshift fort. Columbus left about 40 men there to hunt for gold. He then started home on the Niña.

13. Winning the Race

Columbus had been concerned that Martín Pinzón, with whom he had quarreled at times, would reach Spain first and claim the glory. Indeed, Pinzón had reached a small village in Spain a few days earlier and had notified the monarchs of his arrival. However, they refused to see him until they had heard from Columbus, and Pinzón died before he could tell his story.

14. A Legacy of Exploration

Columbus made three more voyages west before his death on May 20, 1506. Many people believed Columbus was poor at the time of his death, but he actually died wealthy.

* Bonus Fact *: Think it should be Columbus’ instead of Columbus’s? Technically, both versions are correct. But according to some grammar rules, adding the ‘s to proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z is preferred.

These fun facts can be found in World Book Online, your answer for fast, reliable information.

Planet Neptune discovered on Sept. 23, 1846

3D render the planet Neptune on a black background, high resolution. Credit: © Shutterstock

3D render the planet Neptune on a black background, high resolution. Credit: © Shutterstock

Neptune was the first planet discovered based on observations of another planet. In the mid-1840’s, a young astronomer and mathematician named John C. Adams began the hunt for the farthest planet from the sun by observing Uranus. Subtle changes in the planet’s orbit hinted that another body was tugging on Uranus with its gravitation pull. Adams concluded that the unknown planet should be about 1 billion miles farther from the sun than Uranus. He completed his work in September 1845 and sent his computed orbit to Sir George B. Airy, the astronomer royal of England. However, Adams did not provide Airy with sufficient information to find Neptune.

Meanwhile, the French mathematician Urbain J. J. Le Verrier also became interested in the unseen planet. By mid-1846, Le Verrier had also calculated Neptune’s orbit. However, Le Verrier also used his calculations to predict Neptune’s position in the sky. He sent his predictions to the Urania Observatory in Berlin, Germany. Johann G. Galle, the director of the observatory, had just charted the stars in the area where the planet was believed to be. On Sept. 23, 1846, Galle and his assistant, Heinrich L. d’Arrest, spotted Neptune. The planet was in almost exactly the position predicted by Le Verrier.

Traditionally, Adams and Le Verrier have been jointly credited with the discovery. However, after Adams’s papers were rediscovered in 1998, some historians began to grant sole credit to Le Verrier. Adams’s papers revealed that he had not fully explained where in the sky Neptune could be found and that his calculations lacked the accuracy of Le Verrier’s. By contrast, Le Verrier’s calculations of position led Galle and d’Arrest to find Neptune after only a 30-minute search.

This Week In History: Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii was born in 1838

Liliuokalani, Queen of Hawaii, full-length portrait. Credit: Library of Congress

Liliuokalani, Queen of Hawaii, full-length portrait. Credit: Library of Congress

Aloha oe, aloha oe
E ke onaona noho i ka lipo
One fond embrace,
A ho i a e au
Until we meet again 

Farewell to you, farewell to you
The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers
One fond embrace,
‘Ere I depart
Until we meet again

The lyrics to the song “Aloha Oe,” and their lovely accompanying melody, are familiar to many who visit America’s 50th state, the Pacific island paradise of Hawaii. But few know that the song was composed by Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, a woman who played a pivotal role in the tumultuous times that accompanied Hawaii’s transition from monarchy to American possession.

Liliuokalani (pronounced lee LEE oo oh kah LAH nee) was born in a grass house in Honolulu on Sept. 2, 1838. She came from a long line of Hawaiian rulers, going back many years to the unification of the islands in the late 1700’s. The Kingdom of Hawaii, under King Kamehameha III, adopted a constitution in 1840. The young girl, known as Lili’u or Lydia, attended a boarding school for royal children, where she learned to read and write in both Hawaiian and English from Christian missionaries. The practices and values of this religion would remain with her for the rest of her life. American missionaries had first arrived in Hawaii in 1820. Europeans were also familiar with the islands. Captain James Cook of the British Navy had landed there in 1778.

Unfortunately, the newcomers to the islands brought unfamiliar diseases to Hawaii. A measles epidemic struck when Lili’u was 10, and a smallpox epidemic occurred a few years later, killing thousands of Hawaiians. Still, Hawaiians—including Lili’u—intermarried with haoles (foreigners). Lili’u married John Owen Dominis, an American, on Sept. 16, 1862.

Hawaii became an enormously popular place for the growth and export of sugarcane during the mid-1800’s, especially after the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The secession of cane-growing Southern states boosted the demand for sugar from Hawaii, and sugar exports helped Honolulu to become a boomtown. The sugar planters and other non-native residents of Hawaii became a strong economic and political force.

Several Hawaiian kings died following short reigns in the 1860’s and early 1870’s, and no named heir was prepared to ascend to the throne in 1874. After a bitter battle between pro-British and pro-American supporters of two rival candidates, Lili’u’s brother, David Kalakaua, was elected to become king in February 1874. However, many sugar planters resented Kalakaua’s expenditures on a new palace, a navy, and frequent travel. They also criticized his ties to people they considered unstable foreign adventurers. In 1887, they forced Kalakaua to accept a constitution that severely restricted his powers. After King Kalakaua’s younger brother and heir apparent died in 1877, he named Lili’u as his successor. He gave her the royal name Liliuokalani, meaning Lili’u of the heavens.

King Kalakaua died in 1891, and Liliuokalani became queen. Queen Liliuokalani tried to create a new constitution that would increase her power. But the American settlers who controlled most of Hawaii’s wealth disapproved of her efforts and staged a revolt. A republic was established in 1894, and Liliuokalani was forced to abdicate in 1895. The leaders of the republic accused her of participating in an attempted rebellion that would have restored her to the throne. She was imprisoned for eight months in Iolani Palace in Honolulu, the palace her brother had built.

United States President Grover Cleveland tried to restore Liliuokalani to her throne. However, he failed to do so. He later wrote that he was “ashamed of the whole affair” that resulted in Hawaii’s annexation to the United States. Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898.

Liliuokalani died of a stroke on Nov. 11, 1917, at her home in Honolulu. She had no children. However, the former queen left as a legacy her many musical compositions, her writings, and a trust that today still cares for orphaned children in Hawaii.