Your Guide to Celebrating Day of the Dead

This guide to Day of the Dead includes info about the holiday's traditions, like building ofrendas, celebrating with loved ones and sharing good food.

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On the surface, Day of the Dead—aka Dia de los Muertos—seems a whole lot like Halloween: spooky costumes, a fun party and iconic treats. But the traditions of Day of the Dead makes it a holiday all its own. I celebrated Day of the Dead outdoors in San Francisco, when people spent the evening dressed in elaborate skeleton attire with their faces painted to resemble skulls. The aroma of copal incense permeated the air, signifying that this celebration is a sacred one.

What Is Day of the Dead?

It’s a time to remember and honor loved ones who have passed on. Despite its somber-sounding name, Dia de los Muertos is a colorful celebration of life, both past and present, and a time to remember the deceased with warmth and happiness. It’s also an opportunity to spend time with the deceased and celebrate who they were through food, songs and celebrations.

When Is Day of the Dead?

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1 and 2. It coincides with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the Christian holidays for remembrance of departed souls. However, the observances for the holidays are quite different. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are somber days for prayer, while Day of the Dead is, well, a festival!

Halloween is celebrated on October 31, of course, and has a complex history all its own.

Where Is Day of the Dead Celebrated?

The earliest records of a Day of the Dead-like celebration can be traced to the Aztecs in southern Mexico. Over thousands of years, the tradition has spread throughout the Americas and has developed into the colorful celebration we know.

Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico, in regions in Central and South America and in the United States by Mexican and Latinx people.

How Is Day of the Dead Celebrated?

This holiday draws huge gatherings with costumes, traditional foods and lots of music and dancing. The Day of the Dead celebration I attended in San Francisco also has a procession. You can participate in building an altar, or ofrenda, or come to view and add to the community altars. I walked along the route and admired the diversity of styles and shapes of the altars as well as the dedication to commemorating loved ones, often with photos and special mementos.

What Happens on Day of the Dead?

Like the celebration in San Francisco, people gather to celebrate and of course, eat and drink. The celebrations are held to remember the dead and invite their spirits back with an abundance of food, drinks, dancing and music. In addition to building ofrendas, families visit cemeteries and place offerings on gravestones.

What Do the Skulls Represent?

The sugar skulls (or calaveras) are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. It’s part of an age-old tradition to honor someone, dead or alive. Dating back to the Spanish colonization of Mexico, sugar skulls are decorated with icing, ribbons or hats and bows, all in vibrant colors. You can purchase sugar skulls from a local dulceria, or candy shop, or make them at home with a sugar skull mold.

What Is an Ofrenda?

The most important part of the holiday is making alters (ofrendas) dedicated to the dead. In memory of the departed, these altars are covered with gifts, including candles, flowers and favorite foods, such as the classic holiday bread pan de muerto. You may also see the four elements represented:

  • Earth: pan de muerto
  • Wind: papel picado or pierced tissue paper
  • Fire: a lit candle
  • Water: a clay pitcher or glass of water to satisfy the spirits’ thirst

Of course, marigold flowers are also abundant as they help guide souls back. The powerful scent of these flowers is believed to reach the dead and helps lead them home to celebrate with their loved ones.

I hope this piece puts you in the spirit to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, whether as part of a larger community celebration or by throwing a Day of the Dead party with friends and family.

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Lauren David
Lauren David is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, who is now based in Basque Country, Spain. She writes about food, gardening, travel, and lifestyle. Her work has been featured in Huffpost Personal, Greatist, Trivago Magazine and more. When she's not at her desk, you'll find her in the vegetable garden, improvising in the kitchen, making herbal infusions or planning her next outdoor project.