Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a traditional Mexican holiday that is celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd. While people across Latin America and the Caribbean pay respects to their deceased loved ones in different ways during the first two days of November, Mexico is the birthplace of the traditions of Día de los Muertos.

The day after Halloween is when most festivities of this traditional Mexican holiday begin and that’s typically when my own family celebrates this holiday, too.

I’ll be sharing images from previous Día de los Muertos celebrations and my own experiences throughout this post, along with a brief background on the holiday itself!  

A brief history of Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos combines the European Catholic traditions of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day with Aztec rituals of honoring the deceased.  

The tradition originated in southern Mexico more than 3,000 years ago with the first celebrations of departed souls. When the Spanish arrived much later, they tried to stop the holiday as it did not align with their religious beliefs. But nothing they tried was ever able to dampen people’s love and enthusiasm for the day, and over time, the holiday has thrived and evolved.

As people move around the world, Día de los Muertos is recognized far and wide outside of Mexico. It’s especially gained widespread recognition in the U.S. through media attention and a growing population from Mexico. You will probably find local happenings in your community that put the roots of this ancient tradition on display.

In contrast to the name itself, Día de los Muertos is not a day of mourning, but of joy. At the root of it, the day acknowledges death as a part of the human experience. It honors the lives of deceased loved ones by putting aside a day that they can awaken from their eternal sleep and share food, drink, and celebrations with their families.

The day includes a number of important traditions that many people participate in, including my own family. Our own traditions include making altars, decorating with skulls, and making pan de muerto.

Altars (Ofrendas)

One of the most important elements of Día de los Muertos is a traditional altar, or ofrenda, to honor deceased loved ones. It also makes the deceased feel comfortable in the midst of the living community for this annual ritual.  

These altars are traditionally created inside homes, at gravesites in local cemeteries, and more recently, in public places and museums across Mexico and the U.S. These public altars display the craft of altar-making for Día de los Muertos and honor loved ones in the process.

When preparing an altar for deceased loved ones, some people create a welcoming and beautiful display with the deceased family members’ favorite foods and other personal items, along with photos of the departed loved ones. Having these items allows loved ones to feel refreshed after their long journey.

Ofrendas also include:

  • Copal, or traditional incense (dating to pre-Columbian religious ceremonies in Mexico)
  • Cempazuchitl, or marigold flower (other types of flowers are sometimes used as well)
  • Religious imagery, such as a crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe
  • The four essential elements of nature—earth, wind, water, and fire—in various forms, but often including a clay cazuela or cooking pot (earth) and candles (fire)

Ofrendas tell you a lot about the deceased family members and what they enjoyed when they walked the Earth.

Here’s an example of an ofrenda my family and I made to honor our deceased loved ones last year.  You may notice that it includes images of the family members that we’re honoring, along with flowers, incense, calaveras, pan de muerto, and some favorite foods and items of clothing of the deceased.

ofrenda día de los muertos

Photo: Claire Willeford-Carrillo

Skulls (Calaveras)

Calaveras, or skulls, can be seen everywhere on Día de los Muertos, from edible sugar skulls to papier-maché creations decorating homes and altars. Some calaveras have the names of deceased loved ones scripted on their foreheads to remember them on this day.  

The significance of the skull and/or skeleton on this day is to honor the continuous nature of life, laughing joyfully at death as it were and accepting it as part of our everyday existence.

These carefully hand-painted ceramic skulls in the photo below were purchased at the Mercado Sonora pottery marketplace on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City. Along with their variously sized brothers and sisters, they watch over our home in an eccentric rotation year-round and are a central part of the Día de los Muertos celebration of our ancestors in both Mexico and the U.S.

skulls for dia de los muertos

Photo: Claire Willeford-Carrillo

 

Bread of the Dead (Pan de Muerto)

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is an important element of the home or graveside offering and is a well-loved part of this holiday. The round shape of the bread represents the human body, while the long shapes laid over the top of the bread represent the bones, and the round knot in the middle represents the skull.

There are a number of variations of this bread. Some types are made with aniseed, others with orange extract and zest; some are covered with sesame seeds, and others with sugar. Legend states that the bread dates back to pre-Hispanic times, and may have taken the place of human sacrifices originally required by the Aztecs to honor the holiday.

Whatever the origin, any type of pan de muerto you may try is delicious. It also is not that difficult to make at home if you are so inclined.

We typically make pan de muerto at home, as making pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) is one of my hobbies and something I’ve been doing for many years. My 16-year-old daughter, Analía, tried her hand at the pan de muerto this past year with great results!

pan de muertos

Photo: Claire Willeford-Carrillo

Día de los Muertos celebrations today

As widespread migration has separated many families from their ancestors’ gravesites, where cemetery processions and decorations were the centers of celebrations in years past, Día de los Muertos celebrations have changed over the years. There has also been controversy in some communities over the commercialization of the holiday.

What almost everyone can agree on, though, is that this beloved holiday is a resilient and unique celebration of life and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Día de los Muertos is the perfect occasion to honor family, tradition, and our place in the succession of our family tree.

Remitly is honored to help families around the world honor this important annual holiday. You can use our services to commemorate this day with a gift or send money to loved ones celebrating across the border.