Día de los Muertos

Back when the kids were smaller, I helped my friend Kris Arthur with her summer enrichment camps. One year I taught a week’s worth of classes on Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The first day we studied the history of the celebration; during the rest of the week we made tissue paper marigolds and papel picado (intricately cut tissue paper banners), created calacas (festive skeletons), baked pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and designed calavera (skull) masks. The significance of each of these was explained in my class handout, which I adapted for this post. I hope that you find Día de los Muertos as fascinating as I do.


The Day of the Dead festival in Mexico (October 31 – November 2) is a blend of ancient Aztec harvest rituals and the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day. The observance of Day of the Dead varies by region, but generally involves welcoming the souls of the dead back into their homes and visiting the graves of close relatives. Día de los Muertos is not a time to grieve, but to celebrate and remember the dead. The souls of children, or los angelitos (little angels), are greeted the first night, while adult souls are welcomed the second night. To end the holiday, calevera (skull) masks are worn to chase lingering souls back to the land of the dead.

Many families prepare an elaborate altar with offerings (ofrenda) to honor their deceased family members. The altar is constructed in a place of honor within the home, sometimes using tables and boxes to form a pyramid of three or more levels, covered by a white tablecloth.

A washbasin, soap, towel, mirror and comb are placed nearby so that spirits may freshen up when they return home. Altars, which remain in place until November 4, include these elements:

Four candles at the top level represent north, south, east and west. Additional candles are lit for each dead family member, with an extra to make sure nobody has been left out. The candles represent hope and faith, and burn all night so that there is no darkness. They also provide a place for the dead to warm their hands.

Copal is the sap of a Mexican tree, burnt as incense. In the Aztec culture, it was an offering to the gods. On a Day of the Dead altar, the scent attracts the spirits of the dead and guides them home. It also wards off evil.

Fragrant marigolds are traditional Day of the Dead flowers. In the Aztec culture the marigold was known as the flower of 400 lives. Marigolds are placed on the altar so that their scent may guide souls home. Sometimes paths of marigold petals are made from the cemetery to a home. For los angelitos, baby’s breath and white orchids are used.

Food and Drink
A basic Día de los Muertos altar will include:
agua (water), to quench thirst and for purification,
sal (salt), the spice of life, and
pan de muerto (bread of the dead), food necessary for survival
More elaborate altars may include sweets, harvest fruits and vegetables and the favorite foods and drinks of each family spirit. Three sugar skulls, representing the Trinity, are often placed on the second level of an altar.

Calacas are handmade skeletons representing the dead, usually depicting their occupations and hobbies. Calacas show an active and joyful afterlife and are funny and friendly rather than frightening and spooky. Along with the smell of favorite foods, calacas help spirits locate the right house. Calacas have emerged as an art form indigenous to Mexico.

Papel Picado
The Aztecs used paper banners in rituals. Papel picado is colorful tissue paper cut into intricate designs and strung around the altar. Traditional colors for papel picado are:
morado (purple), to signify pain, suffering, grief and mourning
rosado (pink), for celebration,
blanco (white), for purity and hope
amarillo y anaranjado (yellow and orange), for the marigold, sun and light
rojo (red), representing the blood of Jesus (Catholic) and the life blood of humans and animals (Aztec)
negro (black), for the land of the dead

Personal Items
Favorite items and mementos of the departed are added to the altar, including children’s toys, household saints and photos of those honored, plus items for everyday living, such as eating utensils, drinking gourds, serapes, and musical instruments.