Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a holiday that has taken the world by storm over the last decade or so. Box office smash hit Coco, glamorous (and super social media-friendly) skull makeup and flower crown costumes, and the intrigue of a beautiful, mysterious celebration of the dead are all things that have contributed to the growing interest in this Mexican holiday. This day about death, traditionally one celebrated with family, has become, well, larger than life. In fact, before the 2015 James Bond film Spectre depicted one, a Día de Muertos parade didn’t even exist in Mexico City! When tourists started showing up, the city decided to cater to them and created one. It seems that everyone wants in on this unique, fascinating holiday, but what exactly is Día de Muertos, and can your family celebrate even if you have no Mexican or Latin heritage? Here’s a guide to understanding the basics.
The first step in understanding Día de Muertos is acknowledging that it is not Mexican Halloween!
Though the two are often conflated in the United States, Día de Muertos is a celebration entirely of its own, taking place annually on November 1 and 2, with the first day being reserved for children that have passed (Día de los Angelitos or Inocentes) and the second for all souls. While the origins of Halloween and Día de Muertos have lots of similarities, such as having pre-Christian roots that have over time mixed with Catholic tradition, and both center around the idea of the dead or spirits returning to earth, the modern-day intentions and practices are quite different.
Halloween costumes and imagery traditionally center around the spooky; the original purpose of scary costumes and jack-o-lanterns was to ward off the spirits who on this day of the year could return to earth. Día de Muertos, however, celebrates this return as an annual opportunity to reunite with loved ones that have died. As such, as opposed to scary and spooky, the mood of Día de Muertos is joyful, celebratory, and colorful – it’s a family reunion!
With big box and chain stores now carrying Día de Muertos-themed home and party decorations, it’s really worthwhile and respectful to understand the imagery beyond just thinking “oooh this looks cool”… although, I mean it really does, right? But there’s so much more to it! Here’s a bit about some of the most well-known symbols of the holiday:
The most recognizable symbol of Día de Muertos is the skull, or calavera, and they appear in all sorts of iterations. These days, the most well-known is the elaborate skull makeup that has been the subject of many an online tutorial. Typically calaveras are bright and colorful and often err on humorous rather than scary. From painted ceramic decorations to alfeñiques (skulls made of sugar), to renditions of the most famous bougie Mexicana of all time, La Catrina, the calavera is a beautiful staple. So beautiful, that it has become a really popular theme for Halloween costumes as well, but know that there are many mixed feelings about this. Some in the Mexican community are happy that this tradition is appreciated and celebrated by so many, but many others very strongly feel that their culture is not a costume, especially without proper context. If you’re considering trying out sugar skull makeup for your next costume, really think about whether it’s appropriate.
You may be familiar with the elaborate altars that families create in celebration of Día de Muertos. These are ofrendas, offerings, for the loved ones making the journey back to the living world. Here along with decorative calaveras you’ll find sweet treats like pan de muerto, pictures of family and friends (and sometimes celebrities or historical figures!) that have passed, and items that are meaningful to them. It’s typical to find a favorite snack, drink, or even cigarettes adorning ofrendas!
These Mexican marigolds are the official flower of Día de Muertos. The marigolds are said to guide the dead back home with their bright color and powerful perfume. Fresh or handmade paper marigolds adorn ofrendas, gravesites, and cities all over Mexico during the holiday.
These colorful paper banners or flags with cutouts depicting scenes, sometimes with calaveras, are another typical decorative item, adorning streets and ofrendas throughout celebrations of all kinds throughout the year.
So how can you, possibly a person of no Mexican or Latin heritage, celebrate Día de Muertos or work some of the elements into your family traditions? Here are a few ideas:
Try traditional foods.
We all love Mexican food, but try a few new favorites to eat during Día de Muertos. Pan de muerto, bread of the dead, is a sweet bread often decorated with shapes that look like bones and dusted with sugar. Pair it with a warm atole, also known as the “drink of the gods”. This is a corn masa-based drink, sometimes flavored with chocolate, and you can find a ready-made mix in Mexican grocery stores or online. Tamales of all kinds and red posole are savory favorites on this day, as well.
Watch movies and read books together.
Perfect for families, Disney/Pixar’s Coco is not only a wonderful story, but it does a great job of showcasing all that is special and beautiful about Día de Muertos, too. For the littlest in the family, we love the Lil’ Libros La Catrina series, and for bigger kids try Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.
And most importantly. . .
Take time to remember loved ones who have passed.
Of course, family is something that transcends borders and cultures, and we’ve all experienced losing loved ones. Take the time on this day to tell your kids stories about beloved family members; share pictures, listen to their favorite songs, eat their favorite foods, and do things that keep their memory alive for the next generation.
Thanks for taking the time to learn a bit about this beautiful celebration of life and death! ¡Feliz Día de Muertos!