Costumes, candy, and all things macabre take center stage as the end of October approaches—and not just for Halloween. For many, the days spanning October 31–November 2 are for holidays like Día de los Muertos (also called Día de Muertos or the Day of the Dead), when cemeteries come alive with celebrations of remembrance.
Primarily celebrated in Mexico and by those of Mexican heritage around the world, Día de los Muertos is an invitation for the souls of loved ones to return for feasting and celebration. On November 1st, families welcome the souls of deceased children for a day of reuniting called Día de los Angelitos (day of the little angels). On the 2nd, adults’ souls join in the festivities for Día de los Difuntos and the main public celebrations of Día de los Muertos. These two days are, in essence, a massive family reunion of the living and the dead.
Among the many traditions associated with this colorful celebration of life and death, food and drink play a big part. Tamales, panes de muerto, moles, nuts and seeds, alcoholic spirits, atole and other warm spiced drinks, and more are shared at cemetery picnics and left as offerings for the dead. Ornate sugar skulls (also known as Calaverita de Azucar in Spanish) are made or bought to use as offerings, often with the name of the departed loved ones across the foreheads. Portions of the deceased’s favorite foods are left at ofrendas (altars) in the home or at the grave site, ready for the honored guest to enjoy upon their arrival.
Traditionally, the decorations around Día de los Muertos are not only part of celebrating and honoring departed loved ones, but also a way to guide them to the world of the living.
Marigolds (also called cempasúchil or flor de muerto) burst forth in vibrant color from vases, in rows and arches, and in scattered petals. Their brilliant orange hue is bright enough to catch the attention of the dead, the strong scent draws their spirits toward the offerings, and paths of petals guide them from the cemetery to family homes. Candles are lit around graves to warm the dead and light their way. And of course there are the many variations of the signature symbols of Día de los Muertos: skeletons (called calacas) and skulls (calaveras).
The iconic sugar skulls play double duty; though made of sugar, they act primarily as decoration and often represent the soul of a specific person. Other decorations depend on local or familial traditions, among them photographs, figurines, sculptures, costumes, garlands and banners, and many more. All of these together create the bright and festive atmosphere that Día de los Muertos is known for around the world.
Family and Friends
In the days leading up to the first of November, family and friends flock to cemeteries to clean, refresh, and repair their loved ones’ plots and tombstones in preparation for Día de los Muertos. When the actual holiday arrives, hours are spent sitting at gravesides to decorate, feast, leave offerings, and share music and stories. Sometimes the whole night is spent at the cemetery.
Departed spirits are said to join the celebrations, led by the vibrant decorations to party alongside the living. The valuable time spent together not only honors those who have passed on, but also encourages the living to see death as something to embrace rather than something to grieve. At this darkening time of the year, in cemeteries full of memory and love, Día de los Muertos offers up the idea that the dead are not so very far away after all.
Do you celebrate Día de los Muertos, or perhaps visit and remember family members, friends and others who have passed on All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2)? We’d love to hear about your traditions and memories!
¡Feliz Día de los Muertos!