Have you heard of Día De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead? Right now, today and tomorrow, this celebration features skulls, painted skeleton faces, candles, food and cemeteries. It’s a popular Mexican holiday that has migrated into the southwestern states of the United States. So many mysteries reside in the Southwest: gorgeous sunsets over purple mesas, delicious Mexican cuisine, red or green chili and the Día De Los Muertos observance.
The traditional American culture avoids talking about death and grief, much less celebrate it. I wrote a grief memoir a few years ago about the loss of my parents and my growth in the process, and many who supported my other books have shunned it—too serious, too sad!
This Mexican tradition is a fresh approach uniting the living and the dead, celebrating the departed in a visceral way. They share a meal with their deceased loved ones as if they were here!
Before I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1991, I had never heard of this celebration. I grew up in southeastern Colorado. I had studied Spanish at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado and received a minor in Spanish—never heard of it. When I arrived in Albuquerque, I worked at a school with mostly Hispanic students and soon learned about the importance of Día De Los Muertos to my students. They spoke of calaveras (skulls in Spanish) which is
“an ornately decorated representation of a skull, often featuring flowers, animals, and other decorations. During the holiday, this imagery is seen everywhere, from Ofrendas, to paper crafts, and even to cartoons on newspapers. In a way, the Calavera has become an embodiment of the holiday itself.”
My students quickly identified another definition of calaveras with this celebration. When my students first mentioned calaveras, I only knew them to mean skulls in Spanish and they talked of eating them, so I knew I had something to learn. My students’ eyes lit up as they described this festive occasion, so I listened and learned first-hand. Calaveras are sugary candies eaten at this time. Obviously, as families and a community, they honored their dead in a much different way than I had ever seen.
After their introduction, I did my own research and became knowledgeable about this important event. As an Episcopalian, I knew about All Saints or All Souls Day, November 1, but this holiday took it a step further. Here’s some interesting information about this delightful holiday:
“Families create ofrendas (Offerings) to honor their departed family members that have passed. These altars are decorated with bright yellow marigold flowers, photos of the departed, and the favorite foods and drinks of the one being honored. The offerings are believed to encourage visits from the land of the dead as the departed souls hear their prayers, smell their foods and join in the celebrations!”
Día De Los Muertos Traditions
“Day of the Dead is a unique tradition celebrated every year across Mexico. It is a festival aimed at honoring one’s dead ancestors on the date when their souls are believed to return to Earth.”
When is the Día De Los Muertos?
“Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. It is sometimes confused with Halloween because of the symbolic skulls but is not related at all.
It is said that on November 1st the children who have passed come back to visit and celebrate as angelitos and on the following day, November 2nd, it’s the adults (Difuntos) return to show up for the festivities.
Family members prepare for several weeks in advance for the tradition by creating altars, decorating burial sites, and cooking specific Day of the Dead food.”
5 Movies You Need to See about the Día De Los Muertos
- James Bond’s Spectre
- The Book of Life
- Día de los Muertos/ Day of the Dead
1. Day of the Dead is NOT Mexican Halloween
2. The holiday has a rich and ancient history, dating back over 2000 years.
3. Mexican families place Ofrendas to honor their deceased relatives
4. Day of the Dead isn’t somber, it is a celebration
5. Humor has played an important role in the holiday
6. It is customary to visit cemeteries
7. Marigolds are a key component
8. Pastries and sweets are central to the holiday
9. Different traditions exist in different parts of the country
10. The Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City is a very recent addition
Día De Los Muertos has become so popular where I live! Stop in at many souvenir shops in Old Town Albuquerque and multi-colored skeletons in a variety of forms fill the shelves. One character I see repeatedly: a tall slender woman topped with a hat with feathers. Her name is La Catrina and she has been given credit for the skeleton-like makeup so associated with Día De Los Muertos. Learn more about her at:
So, if you’re driving through a southwest city on November 1st or 2nd in the evening, look for a cemetery, lit up with candles placed around a grave and families gathered together to celebrate the lives of their departed. Think about how you remember your deceased love ones. Maybe, next year, don some bright skeleton makeup and join in this age-old tradition!
This morning, I went to the App store on my iPad, and it featured six Día De Los Muertos sticker sets!
A special thank you to Day of the Dead website for valuable information. Visit to learn about delicious recipes of food shared at this holiday and more about the Mexican culture.
Have you ever heard of the Día De Los Muertos? Have you ever participated in the Día De Los Muertos celebrations? How do you view death?
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