Mourning our loved ones when they pass is usually marked by a funeral, dark ceremonial clothing and generally a sad time with friends and family. But one culture created a unique way to meet death and the dead in Mexico and other Central American countries.

Day of the Dead is a two-day holiday where it is considered that the passage between the real world and the spirit world is open so that our dead loved ones can return to us. When loved ones return from the land of the dead, they are offered their favorite foods and drinks as they are celebrated with song, dance and merriment.

When is Day of the Dead?

The Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1 and 2. Sometimes the holiday is confused with Halloween, because it falls on one season and because of the symbolic skulls, but this holiday is not related in any way.

It is said that on November 1, the children who passed come back to visit, and the next day the adults attend the festivities.

Family members can prepare weeks before the tradition begins by creating altars, decorating burial sites, and preparing specific foods for the event.

What is the origin of the holiday?

Día de los Muertos originated in ancient Mesoamerica, or Mexico, and northern Central America, where indigenous groups, including the Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs, had specific times when they commemorated those who had died, according to Smithsonian.

After the arrival of the Spanish, the ritual of commemorating the dead was intertwined with two Spanish holidays: All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2.

Today, this holiday is mostly celebrated in Mexico, parts of Central and South America, and more recently become popular in Latino communities in the United States.

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What are the Day of the Dead traditions?

  • Altars — The Aztecs offered water and food to the dead to help them on their journey to the land of the dead. Families are now setting up decorated gazebos in their homes with photos of loved ones they have lost. Altars, also called ofrendas, consist of water, the deceased’s favorite food, drinks, flowers, bread, and other items that honor the dead.
  • Cempasúchil or marigolds – marigolds are used during celebrations when they are placed on altars and burial sites. It is believed that the calendula flower, with its intense color and pungent smell, brings back perfume.
  • Skulls — Skulls or calaveras are found in the form of small decorated sugar skulls that are placed on altars. The skulls are decorated with colorful edible paint, glitter, beads and huge smiles.
  • Ashes of Darts or perforated paper—used by stringing them on altars and in the streets.
  • food – Mr. de Muertas, or Day of the Dead Bread is an integral part of celebrations and altars. Everyone loves sugar skulls. Traditional dishes such as mole, tamales, pozole and sopa are also prepared.

How to participate

It’s possible to make your own altar, which can be as simple as a candle and a photo, said Michelle Telles, assistant professor of Mexican America at the University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

“I think it’s a very beautiful way to preserve the people we love and teach our families about them,” Telles said in interview with the university.