City Cast

What is Día de los Muertos?

Natalia Aldana
Natalia Aldana
Posted on November 1
A traditional Día de los Muertos altar with candles, flowers, and food offerings.

A traditional Día de los Muertos altar with candles, flowers, and food offerings. (Tais Policanti / Getty Images)

Today kicks off the traditional Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos. As festivities get underway around the city, I wanted to share more about the history of the holiday, which contrary to popular belief has nothing to do with Halloween.

The Origins

For thousands of years, the Indigenous people of what is now modern-day Mexico have traditionally used skulls in their death rites to honor the spirits of those who have passed on. After the Spanish conquest, that practice evolved into what is now Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is observed in different forms throughout Mexico and around the world primarily on Nov. 1 and 2. The tradition is usually celebrated with family gatherings at cemeteries and homes to honor the dead through various rituals and customs.

The Elements of Tradition

Here are the most common elements of Día de los Muertos.

Ofrenda: An altar decorated with photos of loved ones who have passed, flowers, and candles. Also sometimes an “offering” like “pan de muerto,” sugar skulls, fruits, and other food.

Cempasúchil: Marigold flowers used at altars, tombs, and graves — their strong scent is meant to guide the souls of the dead.

La Catrina: The stylized skull originally created by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada.

Pan de Muerto: Mexican sweet bread used as an “ofrenda.” Although recipes can vary, pre-Hispanic cultures had a "papalotlaxcalli," or butterfly bread, dedicated to this type of ceremony.

Papel Picado: Mexican folk art made by cutting intricate designs into tissue paper and hanging them with a string. It is meant to symbolize the wind.

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