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!
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.
This delectably sweet bread is a quintessential part of Dia de los Muertos. Flavored with anise and orange, pan de muerto is baked during the days and weeks leading up to the holiday. Its unique shape represents the bones of the dead while the ball which crowns the loaf represents the tears shed for those who've passed. There are many variations to the recipe, but one of our favorites comes courtesy of Nibbles & Feasts. Get Recipe
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This rich, wonderfully complex sauce is worth the effort to make. It seamlessly brings together chili, spices, dried fruits, chocolate, seeds and more. There are dozens upon dozens of variations of mole but they have one unifying feature—they're all delicious! Serve this sauce with meat dishes.
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Tamales are another staple of Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Like the ritual of making pan de muertos, gathering family around to prepare tamales as ofrendas is customary during the days before Dia de los Muertos. They can be sweet or savory and while tamales take time to make, the process is pretty straightforward so you can get everyone involved in the tamale-making fun.
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Mexican Hot Chocolate
By the time November rolls around, there's a distinct chill in the air. A Mexican hot chocolate is perfect for fending off the cold. Bringing together the irresistible flavors of cinnamon and cocoa, this hot chocolate is always a hit. If you're ready to take it to the next level, add a pinch of chili powder to the mix.
Calabaza en Tacha, or candied pumpkin, may just be the perfect autumn sweet. Dora's Table slowly simmers her version in a rich syrup made from piloncillo (unrefined whole cane sugar), cinnamon and orange zest. It's a phenomenal dish to make not only for Day of the Dead but all throughout the season.
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This warming tortilla soup will banish the cold from your bones in a flash. It's spicy, hearty comfort food you can make ahead and freeze or whip up fresh on the day. Take this recipe to the next level by adding a few slices of fresh avocado.
For a light, refreshing non-alcoholic drink to serve up at your festivities, look no further than agua de jamaica. This popular agua fresca is made from hibiscus flowers and has a flavor reminiscent of cranberry juice. It's a stellar sipper to cool down your taste buds after a taking a bite of some of the spicier fare on your plate.
Looking for a stronger tipple? Pick up a bottle of mezcal and serve it lightly chilled. Mezcal is tequila's grassy, smoky cousin and bottles of the spirit are often left on Day of the Dead altars. You can also use mezcal as a substitute in your favorite tequila cocktails if you're not one for straight spirits.
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Who doesn't love a flavorful hearty stew? Pozole is packed with classic Mexican flavors like cumin, garlic, jalapeno, lime and cayenne pepper which are surefire crowd-pleasers. This delicious pork pozole recipe is simple to make but one dish you'll definitely want to make ahead. (Our version cooks for six hours!)
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Like agua de jamaica, horchata is one of the most popular aguas frescas in Mexico. This version is made with rice and almonds and has a lovely creamy texture to it and just the right amount of sweetness. If you're expecting a large group, be sure to make an extra-large batch—your guests will definitely want seconds.
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Cinnamon-Spiced Pumpkin Flan
Put a seasonal twist on another classic Dia de los Muertos sweet with this cinnamon-spiced pumpkin flan. This smooth, creamy dessert is deceptively light given its luxurious texture and a clever way to make the most out of pumpkin season.
Perhaps the most iconic Dia de los Muertos sweet, Mexican sugar skulls are surprisingly easy to make and are another great way to get your kids to lend a hand in the kitchen. The Other Side of the Tortilla uses royal icing to decorate her eye-catching treats.
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.