01 Nov How To Celebrate Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead is held each year from November 1st through November 2nd; this is a multi-day celebration, and each day has a distinct theme. November 1st is a day to honor children who have passed away, and November 2nd is designated for deceased adults. The holiday commemorates a short period when it’s believed that the souls of deceased family members return to Earth to briefly reconnect with the living.
Day of the Dead originated in Mexico but has since spread throughout Latin America, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala. Regional schools, banks, and other government agencies close in observance of the holiday, especially in Mexico. Day of the Dead traditions began with ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Purépecha, and Aztecs; these cultures viewed life and death as intimately linked. When a person died, it was believed that their soul continued to journey onward, and custom dictated that surviving family members should offer food, water, and supplies to aid the deceased through the next phase. In the 16th century, the Spanish arrived, and with them, the Catholic Church. As such, the indigenous customs were repackaged into a Christian holiday known as All Souls’ Day.
No matter an individual’s heritage, Day of the Dead (or Dia de Los Muertos) is a fascinating holiday brimming with meaningful traditions. Despite colonial influence, Latin Americans have continued to transform and adapt their traditions.
In recent years, both Hispanic millennials and non-Hispanic millennials have increasingly celebrated this Latin American holiday, often through festivals and outdoor concerts; however, because of its macabre themes and calendar date, Day of the Dead is often treated as a sort of cousin to American Halloween, when in truth, the holidays have very different histories and sentiments. For one, Halloween evolved from an agrarian Celtic holiday, whereas Day of the Dead can trace its roots to indigenous Mexican peoples. Halloween is a frightening holiday, whereas Day of the Dead is one of remembrance and joy. Day of the Dead is a completely separate holiday with its own unique foods, decor, customs, and meaning.
While each country’s and family’s traditions will be different and personal, some consistent elements define Day of the Dead. For those who live in the United States, it can be challenging to track down everything you need for the holiday, but there are key steps you might consider to bring these traditions into your own home.
To celebrate Day of the Dead, you’ll first create an altar for loved ones who have passed away. You will need family heirlooms, photos, flowers, and personal mementos of the deceased. Additionally, making sugar skulls and enjoying traditional foods are equally important aspects of the holiday.
What You Need For Your Day of the Dead Altar
The Day of the Dead altar is an essential component of your celebration. In Latin America, locals will undoubtedly spend weeks constructing their altars for the holiday. The altar is a place to honor your ancestors, especially those who may have recently died. In the Christian faith, altars who typically a place to pray and worship; this is not the case on Day of the Dead.
Your altar is a place to celebrate your loved ones, not to mourn them. These elaborate tables are lovingly decorated with colorful fabrics, candles, flowers, and, most importantly, ofrendas. These ofrendas (or offerings) are unique to those who have passed away. For your personal Day of the Dead altar, you may need pictures, trinkets, jewelry, ornaments, foods (especially Pan de Muertos), and whatever else your loved ones may have enjoyed in life.
It’s traditional to leave bottles of alcohol (usually tequila and mezcal) for adults and toys for children. While religion may not be central to your home, it’s not uncommon to include religious symbols for your altar as well, specifically La Virgen de Guadalupe — Mother of all Mexico. Other possible items include salt, a bowl of water, or incense. Every Day of the Dead altar features sugar skulls (also called Calaveras) and orange marigolds (known as Flor de Muerto).
It’s essential that you plan ahead for your altar because not every item will be readily available. Luckily, you have something that the Aztecs did not — the internet. You can easily order pan de Muertos bread, reusable marigold garlands, candles, and religious ornaments online. For photos and heirlooms, connect with family members (especially grandparents) to see how they may be able to contribute. You can make your own ofrendas and decorations as well, especially items like sugar skulls or paper flowers. All told, you could easily spend hundreds of dollars on your altar (especially if you’re opting for fresh flowers and high-end tequila). However, if you’re on a budget, use a table you already have at home and get creative; you can probably keep your total cost under $100.
How To Make Your Own Day of the Dead Altar
First, find a large table (even a folding table will do) that you can use as the foundation for your altar. You might also use a large chest or desk with a nice flat surface. Choose a colorful tablecloth to cover the table. From there, a traditional Day of the Dead altar has levels representing the steps to Heaven; you could use something as simple as cardboard boxes to construct the different layers on your altar. Some families build as many as seven levels, which no doubt requires some architectural acumen.
Then, let the decoration begin. Candles, photos, incense, flowers, beverages, foods, mementos, and whatever else were meaningful to those who passed away.
Traditionally, the altars on November 1st are designed with children in mind (with sweet treats and toys), whereas the altars on November 2nd are meant for adults (with alcohol and cigarettes).
There are different meanings for the items that are traditionally placed around the altar. For example, the bright marigold flowers, with their eye-catching colors and fragrance, are thought to help guide your loved ones’ spirits back to Earth for the holiday.
The pungent aroma of incense is meant to do the same. Items such as pitchers of water are often left on the altars for the souls to drink after their long journeys. Altars can be religious, funny, secular, or festive. It truly depends on how you want to remember those you have lost.
How To Make and Decorate Sugar Skulls
Sugar skulls, or Calaveras, are an essential piece of Day of Dead altars. Sugar skulls are literally candies in the shape of skulls. These candies come in different sizes and are often elaborate and colorful; some families decorate a skull for each deceased individual they are honoring. The fact that these macabre offerings are made with sugar is symbolic of the very holiday itself; death is bittersweet.
You can easily make your own sugar skulls at home; this is a fun activity that can be shared with your family members, including young children. You’ll need to order a mold (which can easily be found online for less than $20) and have a few simple ingredients on hand.
- Combine sugar, meringue powder, and water into a malleable paste.
- Tightly pack the mixture into your skull mold; place a sheet of parchment paper on a flat piece of cardboard and lay this overtop the back of your molds. Flip the whole thing over so your sugar skulls can easily pop out onto the cardboard placemat. Allow these to dry for at least 12-24 hours.
- Use royal icing to glue the front and back of each skull together.
- To decorate, it’s traditional to use different colored icings as well as fun trimmings like feathers and sequins. It should be noted that the sugar skulls are not meant to be eaten, no matter how appealing they may look.
Pan de Muerto
Pan de Muerto (or Bread of the Dead) is a traditional, orange-flavored sweet bread that also appears on Day of the Dead altars. The bread is left as nourishment for the souls who return to Earth for the holiday. It’s also a delicious treat to be eaten together.
You can try to make your own Pan de Muerto; there are countless recipes online as every region has its unique shapes and flavors. If you’re not much of a baker, you can absolutely find these delightful breads at Mexican groceries and bakeries; some of these establishments can even ship Pan de Muerto should you not have a local resource. This is a specific seasonal food, however, so it may not be available outside of October and early November.
Cemetery Day of the Dead Celebrations
Day of the Dead celebrations extend beyond the home; at night, families join their communities at local cemeteries, where they clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones.
Traditionally, the evening of November 1st is for the graves of lost children; the evening of November 2nd is for adults. These celebrations are distinctly different from a traditional gravesite ceremony. Day of the Dead customs encourage both lightness and music. Many believe that when the souls of their loved ones return to Earth, the first place that they visit is their resting place.
After cleaning the gravesite of debris, it’s common to adorn the graves with similar items as you would the altar. Marigolds, candles, and sugar skulls are expected, as well as small mementos for the deceased. You might eat a meal, have a drink, play music, or pray beside the grave. It’s not uncommon for local musicians to attend the cemetery celebrations, playing music long into the night.
Day of the Dead is a special holiday; cultural heritage aside, everyone can all identify with the need to reconnect with loved ones lost. This holiday allows families to find comfort in death; it’s a chance to say the things you may not have had a chance to say. It’s a time to celebrate those that meant so much to you, not to mourn that they’ve journeyed beyond. No matter where you live, whether in Mexico or beyond, you can recreate these rich traditions right at home.