Día de los Muertos: 5 Day of the Dead Traditions Explained

This celebration of life is November 1-2 each year

By Helen Partlow, publisher of Macaroni Kid Mt. Sinai and Port Jefferson, N.Y. October 28, 2020

Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and by those of Mexican heritage throughout the world.

While this holiday is typically held around the same time as Halloween, it is its own separate holiday with its own traditions and intentions. Halloween is a spooky type of holiday, but Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life.

Many of us know about Day of the Dead from the animated movie Coco, the 2017 film about a 12-year-old boy named Miguel who is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead.

Each year, the Denver Botanic Gardens hosts a Día de los Muertos celebration. This year, the event will take place virtually with online activities, a virtual Mercado, and related events and programs.

Want to know more about the Day of the Dead? Here are 5 traditions of Día de los Muertos:

1. Día de los Muertos is celebrated November 1 & 2.

Día de los Muertos originates back to pre-Hispanic times with the indigenous peoples the Aztec, Maya, Toltec, and other Nahua people. These pre-Hispanic cultures considered mourning the dead to be disrespectful. They saw the dead as still being members of the family, who came alive through memory and spirit.  

Once the Spanish arrived in Mexico, this holiday became intertwined with All Saints' Day (celebrated November 1) and All Souls' Day (celebrated November 2). 

Today Día de los Muertos is typically celebrated both days. November 1 is a day to remember children who have passed and November 2 is set aside to remember adults.

2. Día de los Muertos celebrates life.

Día de los Muertos is often misunderstood because it happens around the same time as Halloween and uses symbols such as skulls. It is not a celebration of death but of life — of the memories and bonds that tie us together that most certainly survive one’s death into the beyond.

It is believed that for a brief 24 hours during Día de los Muertos, loved ones who have died can be reunited with the living for a big celebration of life. 

This celebration is an energetic, colorful event designed to demonstrate love and respect for family members who have died. Costumes, parades, and dancing are often a large part of the celebration.

3. Creating an ofrenda welcomes back the dead.

People make an ofrenda, or altar, at cemeteries and their private homes as an homage to the dead. The ofrenda is different from altars meant for praying. Instead, the ofrenda is meant to welcome the dead back to the land of the living.

These altars may include the deceased loved one's photos, as well as their favorite incense, candles, foods, and other items from when they were alive. These items are meant to help attract the souls to visit the living in celebration.

Ofrendas are often decorated with marigolds or the flor de muerto, which translates to "flower of the dead." Marigolds are often scattered from the ofrenda to the grave as a way to guide the dead back to their place of rest.

4. Calavera Catrina emerges.

In the 19th century, artist José Guadalupe Posada re-imagined what he believed Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld, looked like as a female skeleton. His rendering is now known as the Calavera Catrina

“Todos somos calaveras,” is a quote often attributed to Posada. It translates to "We are all skeletons," meaning that we are all the same on the inside.

Today, people wear masks and face makeup in a colorful fashion to mimic the Calavera Catrina.  

5. People eat Sugar Skulls and other traditional foods.

Those returning from the Land of the Dead are believed to have worked up quite an appetite along their journey, so families often leave out the dead’s favorite foods along with other traditional dishes.

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a sweet bread with a little bit of anise. There are many different variations across Mexico, including one in Oaxaca City where they add a face, or caritas, in the center.

Sugar candy is molded into the shape of skulls in celebration of Día de los Muertos. Sugar skulls originated in the 17th century with Italian missionaries. This sugar art is often colorful and can vary in size as well as complexity.

To learn more with your family, please check out these resources: