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Mexico’s Day of the Dead: What You Need to Know

Traditional mexican Day of the dead altar with sugar skulls and candles

“The Mexican… is familiar with death. [He] jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” – Octavio Paz

The Día de los Muertos – as it is known in Mexico – is a celebration where people keep alive the memory of the deceased, reuniting in spirit both the living and the dead. It is recognized by UNESCO since 2008 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Contrary to what many think, the Día de los Muertos is not the Mexican version of Halloween, even though it occurs only a few days later on November 1st and 2nd,  and some of the customs appear similar. It is not a scary time; it is a celebration and reaffirmation of life.



At the core of the celebration, the families create offerings – ofrendas – to honor the memory of the departed. Altars are decorated with brightly coloured marigolds called Cempasúchil o Flor de Muertos (Flower of the Dead) which are believed to attract the souls of the departed, and the altars are loaded with photos, personal items of the deceased, candles, water, and food.

Traditional Mexican Day of the dead altar with sugar skulls and candles
Traditional Mexican Day of the dead altar with sugar skulls and candles



The most well-known representation of the Día de los Muertos is calaveras, or skulls. People paint their faces as skulls and dress up as skeletons. There is even a sweet skull-shaped treat called Calavera that is eaten or offered to the deceased on the altar.

Colourful Calaveras
Colourful Calaveras


Pan de Muerto

Pan de Muerto – or Bread of the dead – is a sweet bread that’s made especially for the Día de Los Muertos. It may be sprinkled with sugar on top or adorned with bones or skulls made out of dough.


Costumes and La Calavera Catrina

Dressing up is part of the festivities, and by far the most emblematic costume of the Día de los Muertos is La Calavera Catrina. This is an elegantly dressed female figure with a skull as a face painting. The original image was created in the early 20th century by the political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, and really came into its own in Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s mural in the historic center of Mexico City: Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Central Alameda). It has been a staple of the Día de los Muertos ever since.

The Elegant Calavera Catrina
The Elegant Calavera Catrina


Papel Picado

Papel Picado (perforated or punched paper) is considered a Mexican folk art whereby colourful banners are created by punching designs out of tissue paper. Up to 40-50 sheets can be perforated at a time using a template and chisels. It can also be created by folding paper and using scissors to cut the shapes. Papel Picado is hung throughout the streets during the holidays and is often placed on the altars (ofrendas).

Papel Picado
Papel Picado



If you’re curious about the rich cultural history of Mexico, why not learn Spanish? Speak Spanish Academy offers a broad selection of classes for adults, teens and children of all ages.


Contact us today at https://www.speakspanishacademy.com/programs/ for more information.

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