Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead / Dia del los Muertos (Nov 1-2)

Every autumn Monarch Butterflies, which have summered in the United States and Canada, return to Mexico for the winter protection of the oyamel fir trees. It is believed that the returning butterflies bear the spirits of the departed. These spirits are honored during Los Dias de los Muertos ( Day of the Dead ).

The colors of the celebration:

purple (for pain)
white (for hope)
pink (for the celebration

History of the Day of the Dead

  • The original celebration can be traced to the festivities held during the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli, ritually presided by the goddess Mictecacihuatl (“Lady of the Dead”), and dedicated to children and the dead. The rituals during this month also featured a festivity dedicated to the major Aztec war deity, Huitzilopochtli (“Sinister Hummingbird”). In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian month of July and the beginning of August,
  • In the postconquest era it was moved by Spanish priests so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve (in Spanish: “Día de Todos Santos,”) in a vain effort to transform this from a “profane” to a Christian celebration. The result is that Mexicans now celebrate the day of the dead during the first two days of November, rather than at the beginning of summer, but remember the dead they still do, and the modern festivity is characterized by the traditional Mexican blend of ancient Aztec rites and introduced Christian features.
  • If you are looking a detailed historical and social history, there are many sites available. Here we will explore the many ways to celebrate this holiday.

How to Celebrate the Day of the Dead

Always keep in mind that Day of the Dead is a joyous time, even though we will bring up deep sorrows when we think of our dear departed ones. We all cannot celebrate as a community, but read the traditional celebrations anyway. It helps you understand the traditions of this holiday.

However, we can all start preparing and altar, an ofrenda, a tribute to our departed ones. Every year, I honor my mother and father and several others. Although, I think of them often, this is a time to honor them. Get pictures ready, make a list of their favorite foods, drinks, fragrances, hobbies, cigarettes/ cigars, hair dye, nail polish…whatever defines them…and create your own tribute.

A traditional community celebration

In preparation, graves are cleaned and altars are made around the grave. Family members bring the departed’s favorite food (placed on the best plates) and drink.

Ideally, marigolds (zempasúchil – an Indian word for a special type of marigold), chrysanthemums and candles are placed along the path to the graveyard guiding the spirits home to their loved ones.

The townspeople dress up as ghouls, ghosts, mummies and skeletons and parade through the town carrying an open coffin.The “corpse” within smiles as it is carried through the streets of town moving toward the cemetary. The local vendors toss oranges inside as the procession makes its way past their markets.

At 6:00 pm, bells begin to ring (every 30 seconds), summoning the dead. They ring throughout the night.

Candles are lit, the ancient incense copal is burned, prayers and chants for the dead are intoned and then drinks and food are consumed in a party/picnic-like atmosphere. Music is played, stories are told. Deceased children (little angels) are remembered with toys and colorful balloons adorning their graves. The spirits of the deceased come to eat the spirit of the foods. During the morning of the 2nd, the living family members enjoy the solid substance of the presented food.

At sunrise, the ringing stops and those relatives who have kept the night-long vigil, go home

  • A most vivid and moving Day of the Dead celebrations take place on ths island of Janitzio in Lago de Pátzcuaro. Here, at the crack of dawn (on November 1st) the Purepechan Indians get the festivities going with a ceremonial duck hunt. At midnight, the cooked duck and other zesty edibles are brought to the cemetery in the flickering light of thousands of candles. Those visitors who come are in for an awesome spectacle as the women pray and the men chant throughout the chilly night. Other candle-lit ceremonies take place in the nearby towns of Tzintzuntzan (the ancient capital of the Purepechan people), Jaráuaro and Erongarícuaro. The next day the families travel to the cemetery. They arrive with hoes, picks and shovels. They also carry flowers, candles, blankets, and picnic baskets. They have come to clean the graves of their loved ones. The grave sites are weeded and the dirt raked smooth. The Crypts are scrubbed and swept. Colorful flowers, bread, fruit and candles are placed on the graves. Some bring guitars and radios to listen to. The families will spend the entire night in the cemeteries.

Make Your Own Altar (ofrenda)

The most important thing to put on your Day of the Dead altar is a photograph of the person to whom you are dedicating the altar. The simplest altar can be a picture and some marigolds. However, you will find that you will keep adding things as your loving memories come flooding back.

A Traditional altar

  • The three tier altar is covered in “papel picado” – which is bright colored tissue paper with cut out designs. The paper can be either handmade or purchased. Three important colors are purple (for pain) white (for hope) and pink (for the celebration). Candles(are also placed all over the altar. Purple candles again are used to signify pain. . On the top level of the altar, four candles need to be placed – signifying the four cardinal points. The light of the candle will illuminate the way for the dead upon their return. Further decorate with natural-color beeswax candles and *veladoras* (candles molded in glass holders)
  • Three candy skulls are placed on the second level. These represent the Holy Trinity. On the center of the third level a large skull is placed – this represents the Giver of Life.
  • All bad spirits must be whisked away and leave a clear path for the dead soul by burning in a bracero, a small burner used to cook outside. Or you can use a sahumerio to burn copal or incense. A small cross of ash is made so that the ghost will expell all its guilt when it is stepped on.
  • The Day of the Dead bread, pan de muerto, should be accompanied by fruit and candy placed on the altar. Pan de Muerto is plain round sweet bread sprinkled with white sugar and a crisscrossed bone shape laid on top. You can also add the person’s favorite food.
  • A towel, soap and small bowl are put on the altar so that the returning ghost can wash their hands after their long trip. There is a pitcher of fresh water to quench their thirst and a bottle of liquor to remember the good times of their life.
  • To decorate and leave a fragrance on the altar, the traditional cempasuchil flower is placed around the other figures. Cempasuchil comes from Nahuatl cempoalxochitl (a flower similar to a large marigold) , that means the flower with four hundred lives. The flower petals form a path for the spirits to bring them to their banquete.

Traditional Food

  • “Bread of the Dead” (pan de muerto) – This sweet bread with sugar and cinnamon has braided ribbons of bread dough placed on top of a round circle of bread to symbolize the skulls of the dead. Basically a rich coffee cake and often decorated with meringues made to look like bones. This sweet bread is placed at the cemetery on he grave of the dead family member along with marigolds, the traditional flower of the dead. It is good luck to be the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each rounded loaf.
  • Skull-shaped candies and sweets. Friends and family members give one another gifts consisting of sugar skeletons or other items with a death motif, and the gift is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with one’s own name. sweets pay an important role in the traditions of the Day of the Dead. Sweets such as Calabaza en Tacha (Candied Pumpkin), Sopapillas, and small, decorated skulls made of sugar are common. The sweets are often displayed on the altars built to honor the dead and taken to the cemetery later.
Sugar Skulls


Instructions for making sugar skulls and much, much more…

  • marizpan death figures
  • Chocolate also often appears, sometimes in drinks, as does pumpkin candy (see recipe), made from huge green Mexican pumpkins grown expressly for this purpose. In pre-Hispanic times, according to Patricia Quintana in Mexico’s Feasts of Life, candied pumpkin was originally sweetened with honey or the sap extracted from the maguey plant.
  • *pastel de tres leches*.
  • Beverages for the festivities should include bottles of tequila and beer for adults, with “Agua de Jamaica” or hibiscus flower water and “Agua de Tamarindo” or Tamarind Water. These traditional beverages of Mexico add to the flare of this holiday.