Day of the Dead

Also found in: Dictionary, Acronyms, Wikipedia.

Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, Span. Día de los Muertos, annual festival in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, commonly on November 1st and 2d. Its ancient Mesoamerican roots now augmented by Christian custom, it celebrates the dead with joy and humor rather than mourning, and coincides with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Family graves are cleaned and decorated, and home altars (ofrendas) are embellished with offerings, e.g., candles, photos, foods, flowers. Special holiday breads and sugar skulls are baked and consumed, and charmingly colorful folk-art skeletons engaged in a variety of everyday activities commemorate the day.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Aztec, Christian)
Date of Observation: November 2, or October 31-November 2
Where Celebrated: Mexico, United States Customs and Symbols : Altars, Calaveras, Flowers, Food, Offerings, Parades, Skeletons and Skulls, Vigil, Visiting the Cemetery
Colors: The liturgical color at all church services on November 2 is black.
Related Holidays: All Souls' Day


Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is an annual holiday observed primarily by Mexican Americans. It is a festive time of remembering and celebrating the lives of those who have died, whether in the preceding year or long ago. The origins of Día de los Muertos (pronounced DEE-ah day los MWAIR-tose) can be traced back nearly 3,000 years to the ancient Aztec people, who observed a month-long festival that included memorials for the deceased. When the Aztecs were conquered by Spain in the early 1500s, Aztec beliefs began to blend with those of Roman Catholicism. Día de los Muertos eventually overlapped with the Catholic All Saints Day and ALL SOULS' DAY (normally November 1 and 2, respectively). Although Spanish missionaries tried to stifle the Aztec culture and way of life, Día de los Muertos celebrations continued. Many of the old Aztec customs, such as decorating gravesites and making offerings to the dead, are still practiced by Mexican Americans today.

Observance of Día de los Muertos varies widely according to geographic location, community and family traditions, and individual preference. Parades are sometimes held, public or community altars are built, and there may be prayer ceremonies in the cemetery or other public space. Regardless of these differences, nearly all Día de los Muertos celebrations include these important elements: building an altar, making offerings, and, if possible, visiting the cemetery.

Even the dates for Día de los Muertos can vary. In some areas, Día de los Muertos is a three-day holiday beginning October 31 and ending November 2. Some celebrations last for a week or more, while others are held only on November 2. However, most observances occur on November 1 and 2, with preparations, such as the building of an altar, begun well in advance. It is generally believed that the spirits of those who have died will return to visit their loved ones during Día de los Muertos. The exact day and time of a spirit's expected return varies according to the dates for observing the holiday. Those who observe Día de los Muertos only on November 2 believe that all spirits return home on that day. Those who observe Día de los Muertos over three days believe that spirits of deceased children (los angelitos, or little angels) return to their families beginning in the afternoon of October 31. This day is sometimes known as Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) or Día de los Niños (Day of the Children). Adult spirits are then thought to return to their loved ones beginning in the afternoon of November 1. The night of November 1 is sometimes called Noche de los Muertos (Night of the Dead) while November 2 is sometimes known as Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Faithful Dead).

In anticipation of the spirits' return, families prepare special FOOD and OFFERINGS to welcome them. The evening of November 1 is a popular time for VISITING THE CEMETERY , and those who do this normally bring along offerings to place on the grave. Depending on geographic location and local custom, people may keep a VIGIL at the cemetery, waiting all night for the spirits of their loved ones to arrive. Some stay at the cemetery only until midnight, and some who leave may return to the gravesite before sunrise on November 2. Still others may keep a vigil at home. When spirits arrive at the gravesite or at the home altar, they may enjoy the offerings as well as the company of their loved ones for a short time. Visiting spirits are believed to return to their graves on November 3.

Día de los Muertos is publicly observed in areas with large Hispanic communities, particularly throughout the southwestern U.S. Many public events are held each year in the city of Phoenix, Arizona, with an annual calendar of festivities published by, a site sponsored jointly by the Arizona Republic, KPNX-TV, and La Voz. The Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff also sponsors public events in observance of the day. The Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Texas, offers special programming for the day each year. The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, also hosts many Día de los Muertos events, with an events calendar published each year by the Albuquerque Tribune.



Most Día de los Muertos celebrants build at least one altar at home to honor deceased loved ones. Communities sometimes create public altars in remembrance of all those who have died in the past year, such as soldiers at war, police officers and fire fighters who died in the line of duty, or victims of natural disasters. Día de los Muertos

The domestic altar is central to the observance of Día de los Muertos. It is set up at home, in the church, or outside the cemetery and serves as a "threshold" providing access between heaven and earth. Home altars are usually made on a table, on top of another piece of furniture such as a chest of drawers, or on a shelf. Some elaborate altars are constructed with three tiers that represent heaven, earth, and purgatory (a place where it is believed that souls are purified before entrance into heaven; see also ALL SOULS' DAY). The altar is usually, but not always, covered with a white cloth, and offerings are then placed on the altar. Each altar is an intensely personal expression of its creator's memories of the deceased, and as a result, every altar is unique. Everything on the altar-flowers, candles, incense, and the dead person's favorite foods-is chosen because it will promote communication with the spirit world. The sights, smells, and colors are regarded as signals that will draw the spirit of the deceased ancestor home.


Another Mexican Day of the Dead tradition is the composition of short poems known as calaveras (calavera means "skull" or "corpse"). This tradition began in Mexico City in the nineteenth century and still continues there today. Aimed at mocking police, government officials, the police, and even priests, writing and publishing these poems is primarily an urban tradition. Even those who excel at calaveras find that their fame is short-lived: once the holiday is over, their taunts are usually forgotten. Calaveras are printed on large sheets of paper and are often illustrated with laughing skeletons dressed in fancy suits or gowns.


Marigolds are the traditional flower of the dead and are used liberally in Día de los Muertos celebrations. They are woven into garlands and necklaces, placed on altars and gravesites, and thrown from floats in parades. Marigolds are also strewn on the ground to mark a path that guides spirits on their journey home. The particular scent of marigolds is thought to attract the spirits of the deceased.

Other flowers that are used during Día de los Muertos include cockscomb, white gypsophila, gladioli, and carnations. Decorative flowers are also made out of crepe paper or tissue paper and used to adorn altars and graves.


Certain special foods are prepared and eaten only during Día de los Muertos, most notably pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Pan de muerto is sweet egg bread that is normally round and often baked with bits of dough placed on top to form skeletons or skulls and crossed bones. Pan de muerto can also be made in the shape of bones, people, or animals. Sometimes the loaves are decorated with colored sugar on top. Sugar candies in the shape of skulls, skeletons, or tombstones are another popular food reserved for Día de los Muertos. These sweet treats are a particular favorite of children and are often included in offerings.

Other traditional Mexican holiday foods are also enjoyed during Día de los Muertos. These include mole (chicken or turkey in a sauce made with chocolate, chile peppers, and sesame seeds), tamales (corn dough stuffed with meat or vegetables and wrapped in corn husks), pumpkin candy, chocolate, and fruit. Atole, a thick beverage made of corn cooked with milk or water and spices, is sometimes also served.

Offerings (Ofrendas)

Offerings are gifts to the spirits that are placed on altars or at gravesites. (Some people use the term "offerings" to refer to the altar itself as well as the items on the altar.) Just as each altar is unique, offerings also vary according to the tastes, interests, and personality of the deceased. Offerings include anything that was loved and enjoyed by the deceased in life, such as music, toys, personal items, clothing, or jewelry. In addition, offerings usually include items that represent the deceased in some way-for example, symbols of a beloved hobby or occupation. Candles, flowers, incense, papeles picados (colored paper with elaborate designs cut out), favorite food and drinks, and photos of the deceased are common offerings.


Parades for Día de Los Muertos may be held in places with a large Mexican-American population. These parades include dancers, musicians, marchers carrying portable altars, floats displaying huge coffins or skeletons, and other images of the dead. People in the parade and also those watching often dress in costumes representing those they have lost in the past year. Parades may be a procession through town to the local cemetery, or they may lead to a public space where a communal altar has been constructed.

Skeletons and Skulls

Although the skeleton and the skull are clearly symbols of death, they appear in a very lively form at Mexican and Hispanic-American celebrations of All Souls' Day. The skeleton and the skull are perhaps the most widely recognized symbols of Día de Los Muertos, and they appear in every imaginable size and shape. There are dancing skeletons made with bouncing arms and legs, edible skulls made out of bread or sugar, life-sized and miniature skeletons, and skulls that can be worn as a mask. Especially popular are the handmade figurines called calacas, which are skeletons posed in activities such as taking a bath, riding a horse, playing a piano, performing surgery, typing, reading, and anything else that a living person might Día de los Muertos

do. Calacas are commonly used on altars and as gravesite decorations to represent the deceased.


People waiting for the spiritual return of their loved ones often keep a vigil, meaning they stay up all night to watch for the spirit's arrival. Offerings are laid out to welcome the spirits. Flowers are sometimes strewn along a path to the home altar or gravesite in order to help the spirit find its way. Whether the vigil is held in the cemetery or at home, it is usually not a somber occasion. People normally use the time to share stories and memories of the deceased person. They may also choose to sing, dance, listen to music, play games, or engage in some activity that the deceased person enjoyed in life. Some people tell stories of events that occurred in the previous year, in order to keep the deceased informed of family news. A meal dedicated to the deceased is usually shared by those keeping watch, and special food is set out for the deceased to enjoy. It is

The Meaning of Offerings

Some offerings have a particular meaning when included on an altar:

Candles provide light to guide spirits and heat to warm them when they arrive.

Empty chairs placed next to the altar welcome spirits.

Incense guides the spirits.

Pan de muerto or other food nourishes spirits.

Salt purifies the spirits.

Sugar skulls represent the sweetness of life and the sadness of death.

A washbasin or clean hand towel allow spirits to refresh themselves.

Water quenches the spirit's thirst and also cleanses the spirit.

A woven mat, or patate, gives spirits a place to rest.

A figure of a dog represents the belief that when a person dies, he or she is met at the edge of a river by a dog that dances with them, and then swims them across the river to the land of the dead. believed that spirits consume only the "essence," or aroma, of the food. The actual food is either disposed of in a special ceremony or it is eaten later by the deceased person's loved ones.

Visiting the Cemetery

A visit to the gravesite is one of the most universal customs of Día de los Muertos. Family members tend to the gravesite by cleaning grave markers and making any necessary repairs. Weeds are removed and grass is cut if needed. The gravesite is then decorated with a variety of objects intended to please the deceased. These decorations might include streamers made of ribbons or colored paper, flags, flowers, candles, or artwork such as papeles picados (colored paper with elaborate designs cut out). Some people choose to paint grave markers or crypts in bright colors, usually some combination of blue, yellow, and pink. When the gravesite is sufficiently cleaned and decorated, offerings are placed on the grave. The amount of time spent at the gravesite varies according to geographic location, family tradition, and individual preference.


Barol, J.M. "Embracing One's Fears: Día de los Muertos Could Change Your Relationship with Death." Albuquerque (NM) Tribune, October 21, 2005. Carmichael, Elizabeth, and Chloe Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. "Halloween and Festivals of the Dead in Mexico." In Junior Worldmark Encyclope- dia of World Holidays. Edited by Robert H. Griffin and Ann H. Shurgin. Vol. 2. Detroit: U*X*L, 2000. Hill, Jeff, and Peggy Daniels. Life Events and Rites of Passage. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2008. Hoang, Vivi. "Spirits Live on Day of the Dead: Mexican Tradition of Dia de los Muertos Pays Respect to Deceased through Offerings, Communion." Ten- nessean, October 27, 2006. Jacobs, Andrew. "As Joyous as It Is Macabre; A Mexican Holiday Ensures the Dead Have Their Day." New York Times, November 3, 1999. Menard, Valerie. The Latino Holiday Book: From Cinco de Mayo to Día de los Muertos- The Celebrations and Traditions of Hispanic-Americans. New York: Marlowe and Co., 2004.

WEB SITES, sponsored jointly by the Arizona Republic, KPNX-TV, and La Voz Día de los Muertos

Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin, Texas

Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
References in periodicals archive ?
Day of the Dead remains a popular horror movie and Joseph was a regular at conventions that celebrated the genre.
The Day of the Dead Festival is a community cultural event celebrating the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, which honors and remembers people who have died.
"Come and celebrate the Day of the Dead in true Mexican style!
Coco bursts with the holiday's saturated colours, as well as such Day of the Dead markers as the "ofrenda" (private altar), brightly painted sugar skulls, cut-paper decorations and marigold-strewn paths.
As with most holidays, the Day of the Dead comes with traditions, like specific foods that are made like the bread of the dead and sugar skulls, or decorations like papel picado which is a type of decorative paper that has detailed stenciled cutouts on it.
Above: Day of the Dead wine glass, PS1, Poundland; Mexico skull stool/side table, black, by Qeeboo, PS155, Amara
Above: Day of the Dead wine glass, PS1, Poundland; Mexico skull stool/side table, black, by Qeeboo, PS155, Amara L-R: Two Sugar skull tea light holders, PS2 each, Asda; Halloween mask, PS1, Poundland Luxbon, set of three Day of the Dead cushion covers, PS10.06, Amazon MARK THE DAY OF THE DEAD If the setting's too gloomy for your taste, bring in colour with vibrant items evoking the spirit of the Day of the Dead, the annual celebration in Mexico.This skull-shaped seat and/or side table's designed to send shivers up your spine.
Through music, art and dance, artists and galleries are celebrating D'a de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
His family added that "he died while listening to the score of one his favorite films, 1952's "The Quiet Man," with his wife, Suzanne Desrocher Romero, and daughter, Tina Romero, at his side." George is known for his zombie movies, such as "Night of the Living Dead", "Dawn of the Dead", "Day of the Dead", "Diary of the Dead", "Land of the Dead", and "Survival of the Dead".
The Day of the Dead festival originated in Mexico and is now celebrated throughout Latin America.
From the start, the Day of the Dead was a cross-cultural affair: The All Souls Day introduced by the Spanish merged with existing Aztec holidays celebrating fallen warriors.
Their specially crafted "Day of the Dead" room is a feature of the haunted house that has been a popular room in Fear City all season long.