Everything You Need to Know About Day of the Dead

It's a lot more than sugar skulls and mariachi music. This handy guide delivers the facts you need to understand, love and celebrate this mysterious holiday.

Wooden table filled with brightly decorated skulls and coffins of different sizesTaste of Home

On the surface, the Day of the Dead—Dia de los Muertos—seems a whole lot like Halloween: spooky costumes, fun parties and yummy treats (Day of the Dead cookies, anyone?). But the traditions and history of Day of the Dead make it a celebration all its own—and after reading this, you’ll definitely want to join in. Here’s what you need to know:

What is Day of the Dead?

It’s a Latin American holiday that honors those who’ve gone before us. Despite its somber-sounding name, it’s actually a colorful celebration of life, both past and present, and a time to remember the deceased with warmth and happiness.

How Did it Begin?

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

When is it?

Despite its indigenous roots, Day of the Dead also incorporates some Christian traditions. It now coincides with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2) every year. Yep, it actually spans two days!

 
Table decorated with tiny painted skulls wearing hats and brightly colored plates. A blue pot of pinched pocket treatsTaste of Home

How is it Celebrated?

A big holiday means a big party. Expect huge gatherings with costumes, traditional foods—tamales (yum!)—and lots of music and dancing. But the most important part of the celebration is making altars (or 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. People also visit loved ones’ graves and often decorate them, too.

Fun Facts

  • Sugar skulls (or calaveras) aren’t just for your sweet tooth—they’re 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.
  • Day of the Dead has a surprising mascot: the butterfly! Monarch butterflies, said to hold the spirits of the dead, arrive in huge numbers at this time of year to winter in Mexico, explaining the myth’s history.
  • Marigolds play an important role in decorating graves and ofrendas. The powerful scent of these flowers is believed to reach the dead and helps lead them home to celebrate with their loved ones.

Now that you’ve had a crash course, I bet you’re in the spirit to celebrate Dia de los Muertos this year. I know I’m ready!

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