For centuries, Día de Muertos celebrations in Mexico have been characterized by the vibrant yellow and orange hues of the marigold flower, also known as cempasúchil. The flower is one of the most iconic symbols of the annual holiday that celebrates and honoring the dearly departed. But how did cempasúchil become such an integral part of Día de Muertos celebrations?

The earliest written mention of cempasúchil dates back to the 16th century, in a text known as the Florentine Codex. Written by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, the manuscript is a 2,400-page document of the culture and customs of the Aztec people. In it, de Sahagún describes the Aztecs’ sophisticated medicinal use of various flowers and plants, noting the important role marigolds played in both medicines and celebrations.

According to the codex, the flowers – known as “Cempohualxochitl” in Nahuatl – were involved in the celebrations of two Aztec feast days that commemorated the dead.

Their use in these celebrations is believed to be tied to a romantic Aztec origin myth about two lovers, Xótchitl and Huitzilin. According to the legend, the lovers would often hike to the top of a mountain to leave flower offerings for the sun-god Tonatiuh, and to swear their love and commitment to one another. When Huitzilin is tragically killed in battle, a distraught Xóchitl prays to the sun-god to reunite them on earth. Tonatiuh, moved by her prayers and offerings, grants her wish by sending a ray of sun that transforms her into a flower as golden as the sun itself, and reincarnates her lover as a hummingbird. When the Huitzilin the hummingbird approaches Xóchitl the flower with his beak, her twenty petals bloom, filling the air with cempasúchil’s distinctive and powerful scent.

Ever since then, the Aztecs have used the flower as part of Día de Muertos celebrations; its happy and bright colors are a way to celebrate life instead of being bitter about death.