Families throughout Mexico gather together on the Day of the Dead to remember and honor deceased loved ones. They create altars, known as ofrendas, in their homes or at gravesites, adorned with photographs, candles, flowers, and favorite foods and beverages of the departed.
Throughout the celebration, people engage in activities such as gathering at cemeteries to clean and decorate graves, sharing stories and memories of the departed and participating in parades and processions. It is believed that during these days, the spirits of the deceased return to visit their families, and the ofrendas serve as a welcoming space for them.
“Focus on What They Loved in Life”
For Zuzzette F., celebrating the Day of the Dead with her family is “a mix of emotions: we are grieving and sad, but also happy that our loved ones lived with us and the memories we shared.” Zuzzette was born in Mexico but now lives in California. But as each November approaches, she looks forward to creating a personal day of remembrance and celebration for departed loved ones.
The Day of the Dead often serves as an informal family reunion. By sharing a very detailed celebration of a loved one’s life, Zuzzette believes that you keep their memory vibrant in younger generations: “My daughter was eight when my grandmother died, but as she grows, she learns more about her, what she ate, the books she read, the music she listened to. Hearing these stories and having objects that represent our ancestors reanimates that person’s life to the next generation.”
Creating the Ofrenda (Altar)
The altar (ofrenda) is at the heart of the ceremony. Ofrendas can be as simple or as elaborate as you want to make them, according to Zuzzette. Her mother uses the dining room table, carefully placing pictures of deceased relatives and sugar skulls (calaveras de azúcar). The sugar skulls are intricately crafted and often personalized with the deceased’s name. She also sets out candles, decorative skeletons (catrinas), and fresh-cut cempasúchil (marigolds). For a final touch, Zuzzette’s mother hangs brightly-colored tissue paper (papel picado) in patterns of geometric shapes, crosses, birds, flowers, skeletons, and skulls on the walls and from the ceiling.
The focus of the ofrenda, says Zuzzette, is everything the honored dead loved in life, including their favorite foods and beverages. Her maternal grandmother, for example, liked chocolate, so Zuzzette’s family always has chocolate, sometimes chocolate sweetbread, on tiny plates on the ofrenda. (Her fraternal grandmother liked tequila, so there is always a small glass for her.) You also play their favorite music, which Zuzzette says can be an interesting blend when celebrating more than one relative.
Celebrating the Dead at Their Resting Place
Some families place an altar on their loved one’s headstone or gravestone after carefully cleaning it. Whether in a home or the cemetery, family members use the cempasúchil to create a path to the altar for the dead to follow. There, they find their favorite food or beverage. These tempting offerings are left throughout the Day of the Dead and collected (or consumed) the next day.
Private family altars are for cherished relatives and perhaps close family friends. There are also community ofrendas at schools or parks. These altars are dedicated to historical figures, alums, or beloved community residents. There is a Mega Ofrenda in the Zócalo, or central plaza, in Mexico City. Museums also create their unique altars throughout the nation’s capital.
Dapper Skeletons and Satirical Poems of Día de los Muertos
One of the most iconic images of the Day of the Dead is la calavera catrina (the dapper female skull). Often shown with an elegant hat and feathered boa, the catrina first appeared in Mexican culture in the early 20th century. José Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican artist, engraver, and illustrator who created the figure to represent death while poking fun at the upper-class women of the time who imitated European fashion. It is common to see men and women with painted faces and costumes mimicking the catrina at Day of the Dead parades and processions.
Calaveras: Poetic Satire
Another treasured tradition involves reciting poems known as Calaveras. These poems are intended to be playful and satirical, often poking fun at public figures such as politicians or entertainers in a way that lovingly suggests they are already “dead,” or in other words, not deserving of serious attention. School children often create Calaveras with their friends, with the goal of gentle ribbing, not harsh sentiment.
Let’s Eat: Special Foods for the Day
Special foods are an essential part of the celebration for Zuzzette and the many other families who observe the Day of the Dead. “My favorite is pan de muerto (bread of the dead). You can make it at home, buy it at a panaderia, or even at Costco in Mexico. It has hints of orange and cinnamon. My family eats it with hot chocolate,” Zuzzette says.
The pan de muerto is a sweetened, soft bread shaped like a bun and often adorned with skulls or crossbones, symbolizing the departed loved ones. Sometimes, the bread has a tear-shaped indentation, representing the tears shed by the living. Often topped with white or pink sugar, this visually striking bread is steeped in cultural significance and can serve as a beautiful centerpiece for Day of the Dead gatherings.
Other traditional Day of the Dead foods:
- Dulce de calabaza (candied pumpkin) – Click here for the recipe
- Mole (sweet and spicy sauce) – Click here for the recipe
- Atole (warm, sweet cornmeal drink) – Click here for the recipe
How the Day of the Dead Began
The Day of the Dead is an official Mexican holiday that is becoming increasingly popular in other Latin American countries and certain regions of the United States. According to the official Mexican government website: “Its origin is located in the harmony between the celebration of Catholic religious rituals brought by the Spanish and the commemoration of the Day of the Dead that the indigenous people carried out since pre-Hispanic times.” For the Day of the Dead, November 1 honors children who have passed, and November 2 recognizes deceased adults.
Cultural Appreciation for the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead is a sacred time for families and communities to honor and remember their loved ones who have passed away. Day of the Dead decorations and costumes are popular outside of Mexico and other Latin American countries that traditionally observe the day. While you do not have to be Mexican to appreciate the holiday for honoring someone special, please do so with respect to this ancient cultural custom.