Cultures all around the world have honoured the dead since the dawn of time. From Ireland‘s ancient Samhain festival, Barriletes Gigantes in Guatemala and India‘s Mahalaya Amavasya, honouring ancestors is nothing new. Easily one of the most recognizable and popular celebrations of the dead is Dia de los Muertos aka Day of the Dead. This Mexican festival is the ultimate celebration of life and death full of colour, remembrance and tasty food galore.
All You Ever Wanted to Know About Dia de los Muertos
Here’s the full scoop on Latin America’s most recognizable holiday. Curious about sugar skulls? Wondering about the meaning behind those beautiful orange flowers that flood the streets? You’ve come to the right place.
Day of the Dead is Not “Mexican Halloween”
Contrary to popular belief, Day of the Dead is not Mexico’s spin on Halloween. While they fall around the same time and have some similarities, they are entirely separate from one another. Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. Day of the Dead is rooted in the traditions of ancient Mesoamerica. Both share the theme of death, but Day of the Dead is a celebration of life rather than a night of mischief and terror. Additionally, while Dia de los Muertos originated in modern-day Mexico, it is celebrated all throughout Latin America.
It’s Not Somber at All
While Dia de los Muertos does, in fact, remember the people who’ve left this world, it’s not all doom and gloom. Day of the Dead is actually a joyous occasion. It’s meant to celebrate those who’ve gone and fill the community with life and excitement. On Dia de los Muertos you won’t find many wandering mourners but rather cheerful merrymakers drinking, dancing and carousing in honour of their ancestors.
The Ofrenda Plays an Important Role in Dia de los Muertos
When discussing anything to do with the Day of the Dead, you’ll hear the term “Ofrenda” thrown around quite a bit. An Ofrenda is a shrine, usually in a home that is made to honour the dead. Here you’ll find photos of the deceased along with their favourite objects, foods and decorations made by the family. It’s an extremely important part of any household choosing to celebrate the special day.
Those Orange Flowers are There for a Reason
The Flor de Cempasuchil, also known as Mexican Marigold is the bright orange flower that fills just about every street, cemetery and home on Dia de los Muertos. The Mexican Marigold grows all around Mexico during autumn, but that’s not why it plays a key role in Day of the Dead. In Mexican folklore, this scent is strongly associated with death and rebirth; it’s thought to attract souls of the dead. The bright orange marigolds are most often found on Ofrendas and cemeteries where people have placed them to attract their ancestors.
Visiting Cemeteries is Customary
It should come as no surprise that a holiday purely in honour of the dead would involve at least one cemetery visit. An important part of Dia de los Muertos is family gatherings at cemeteries. In preparation of the special day, families will usually clean the graves of the deceased and spruce it up with flowers and handmade decorations. In true Mexican folklore tradition, the graves are decorated heavily with Mexican marigolds. Families will often bring with them offerings and share a meal together alongside the burial ground.
A Bit of History on One of Mexico’s Most Vibrant Celebrations
Dia de los Muertos is firmly rooted in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican traditions and dates back at least 3,000 years. The Aztecs and Nahua peoples valued the cyclical nature of the universe above all else. They celebrated all cycles of life from death to rebirth, believing that all intertwined with each other. Because of this, pre-Columbian peoples placed a huge emphasis on the afterlife. This included the believed ability to convene with the dead during certain times of the year. It was a time to be happy and cherish the little time that could be spent together while the portal between the living and dead was open.
Once the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the indigenous traditions were combined with that of the Roman Catholics, but not completely. While Dia de los Muertos is in fact celebrated on the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day and All Saints Day, it’s proof that while the conquistadors tried their best to stamp out much of the native religion, they never succeeded completely. Today a vast majority of the prehispanic traditions of food offerings, celebrations and folklore are alive and well. And for that, we’re grateful. In other words, in the millennia since the first celebrations of Day of the Dead, a lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same.
The Importance of Sugar Skulls
In Mesoamerican society, skulls were an important part of the culture from sacrifices to symbolism. In ancient times prehispanic people saw them as an offering to the God of the afterlife, Mictlantecuhtli who would assure them a safe passage into the other world.
After the arrival of the Spanish, the conquistadors banned pretty much all traditions involving bones and or corpses. Therefore, this tradition evolved to be more confectionary and Mexicans started making decorations out of sugar. The vibrant colours and designs speak to the long-held belief of celebrating the dead and their journey to the afterlife.
These sugar skulls also serve as a prime example of prehispanic traditions that managed to survive despite colonialism.
Another strongly recognized symbol of Dia de los Muertos is the ever beautiful La Catrina. This tall female skeleton typically sports a big fancy hat with an elaborate dress. She came about by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a controversial political cartoonist from the early 1900s. He sketched La Catrina in a time when many Mexicans were chasing their idea of aristocracy and wealth. La Catrina was a reminder that no matter the wealth you acquire or society which you belong, we all wind up as skeletons. After the past century, it’s become a big reminder of the importance or rather lack of importance of class in the afterlife.
Day of the Dead Food
It’s no surprise that food plays a significant role in Dia de los Muertos since it originated in a country known for some of the best food in the world. Here are five unique dishes surrounding Dia de los Muertos.
Pan de Muerto
This traditional bread is one of the most key foods that people go for around Day of the Dead. While the type of bread designated typically varies by region, there are a few key characteristics. Most commonly, pan de muerto is slightly sweet and has shapes on top that typically resemble crossbones. Said to represent the deceased, families usually bake two loaves, one for them to eat on Dia de los Muertos and another for the Ofrenda.
Tamales have been a centrepiece of holiday tables in Mesoamerica for several millennia. Estimated to date back to at least 5,000 BC they are one of the oldest and most revered Latin American foods. They are indulged in throughout the holiday season and start popping up around Dia de los Muertos. They vary greatly between regions and countries outside Mexico from corundas (triangular tamales) and tamal de iguana made with boiled Iguana meat.
Chocolate is native to Mesoamerica and played a huge role in ancient rituals. In the old days, Mexicans would consume it as a warm spiced drink with additions like cinnamon, nutmeg and cayenne. It is also not sweet and marshmallowy like it’s northern neighbours version. It is especially great for warming up in the cool months and remains a popular Mexican beverage all these years later. Especially on significant holidays such as Day of the Dead.
Calabaza en Tacha
Calabaza en Tacha or candied pumpkin is a huge deal around Dia de los Muertos. These delicious pumpkin chunks are full of sugar and cinnamon and bear a strong resemblance to candied yams made up north in the US. The prehispanic dessert dates all the way back to Mayan times when they would drench the pumpkin in honey before cooking it in a fire pit. Following the Europeans introduction of cane sugar, the recipe has changed slightly, but much of the original flavour and traditions behind the dish remain intact.
This richly flavoured sauce originates in Oaxaca and is a favourite on Dia de los Muertos. The spices are burned and blackened, creating the iconic smoky taste of chiles, cinnamon and sometimes chocolate. Like all the best holiday dishes out there, the specific method and recipe vary from family to family. The most popular mole of choice on Dia de los Muertos is mole negro. This rich and savoury paste is the deepest and strongest of all the mole sauces. It’s key characteristics involve Mexican chocolate and tons of aromatic spices like peppercorn, allspice and clove.
How to Celebrate Dia de los Muertos at Home
Get Crafty With Some Folk Art
Traditional Mexican folk art is extremely diverse and loaded with indigenous and European technique. Why not try your hand at one of the many forms of folk art such as papel picado? The colourful banners come together with delicate pieces of paper to adorn altars, homes and streets alike. Each colour represents something special to Dia de los Muertos. The colour yellow represents life, purple signifies death, and orange represents the union between life and death. Follow this tutorial by Cacique to make your own papel picado.
Create a Thoughtful Ofrenda
As we mentioned, the Ofrenda is a central and sacred part of any Dia de los Muertos. Create a small space to serve as a temporary altar for honouring your ancestors. It can be as elaborate or as plain as you wish. Start by adding their photo(s) along with a few of their favourite things. Did your grandmother love playing cards? Add a deck. Or maybe she preferred a drink of whiskey now and again; you can honour her by placing a glass on the Ofrenda. Lastly, decorate the Ofrenda with some Mexican Marigolds and candles.
Bake a Traditional Pan de Muerto
As mentioned earlier, food is a hallmark of Dia de los Muertos. If you’re looking to celebrate Day of the Dead from your own kitchen, pan de muerto is a perfect place to start. This ancient dessert isn’t all that complicated to whip up and is a great test of your dough skills. Check out this step by step recipe by Mely Martinez of Mexico in My Kitchen.
Everyone knows that Pixar has a knack for tugging on heartstrings. After all, they produced major tearjerkers such as Up, Monster’s Inc and Finding Nemo. Arguably their best film of the past decade has been Coco. The film follows the adventure of a Mexican boy’s journey to connect with his grandfather beyond this world on Dia de los Muertos. It’s an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Dia de los Muertos traditions such as the importance of the Ofrenda and prehispanic belief in spirit animals. At its core, Coco is about connecting with family, remembering our loved ones and honouring culture through tradition. Watch the trailer here.
Create Your Own Calavera de Azúcar
Calavera de Azúcar are definitely one of the most recognizable symbols of Dia de los Muertos. They speak to the holiday’s complicated past of blending old and new tradition while celebrating the circle of life. What better way to honour the special day than by crafting one of your own? There are a plethora of recipes to create the most whimsical and colourful design out there, but The Spruce Eats is a great place to start.