When & how to celebrate Día de los Muertos | Traditions & more

Have you ever wondered how and why Día de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico?

Although this iconic Mexican tradition might seem a little spooky at first, it’s really a joyous celebration that brings happiness to millions of homes in Mexico and around the world.

This UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is known for its colorful decorations and ubiquitous skulls. Although virtually all cultures around the world have a way of honoring the dead, most do it in a somber and respectful way. Mexico, on the other hand, does it in an explosive, celebratory, and irreverent way, often poking fun at death herself!

So, keep reading if you want to learn how to celebrate the Day of the Dead the Mexican way. We’ll go over all the most important traditions of Día de los Muertos and even teach you how to write your own calaveritas — poems to poke fun at death!

Día de los Muertos parade in Mexico.

When and why did Día de los Muertos originate?

Día de los Muertos originated from ancient Mesoamerican traditions of honoring the dead, blending with Spanish Catholic influences over time. It’s a beautiful celebration of the dead that emphasizes happiness and celebration rather than sorrow in remembering loved ones who have left us.

Historical background

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of the most unique Mexican traditions, dating back to pre-Columbian times. The Aztecs, along with other indigenous groups in Mesoamerica, had rituals honoring their deceased loved ones. These ancient people believed that death was just another stage in the cycle of life, and they had festivals dedicated to the goddess Mictēcacihuātl, the lady of the Dead. They celebrated these events during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, roughly corresponding to August.

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they brought their customs and beliefs, including the Catholic traditions of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Over time, these two blended, and the Día de los Muertos we know today began to take shape.

The tradition of Día de Muertos today

Fast forward to today, this is a lively and colorful celebration that honors the dead in a fun way. Yes, we’re all sad that our loved ones have passed away, but what’s the point of being sad? Instead, we should celebrate the time we had with them by throwing a party — who knows, maybe their spirit will come and join in on all the fun!

And that’s just what millions of families do all over Mexico on this day. They set up ofrendas, or altars, decorated with photos, candles, marigold flowers, and the favorite foods and drinks of the departed. The plan is to make the altar so irresistible that the spirits will have no choice but to return to the world of the living to enjoy the offerings and spend time with their families.

The streets are filled with parades, mus mic, and people wearing calaveras (skull) and Catrina makeup, which symbolize the beauty and inevitability of death. It’s a time for storytelling, laughter, and reflecting on the lives of those who have gone before us.

When is Día de los Muertos?

Día de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd of each year. November 1st is Día de Todos Los Santos, which honors deceased children, while November 2nd is Día de los Muertos, commemorating deceased adults. These dates align with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, reflecting the blend of indigenous Mesoamerican traditions with Spanish Catholic influences.

How to celebrate Día de Muertos

If you’re here to learn how to celebrate Día de los Muertos authentically, then this section is for you. Celebrations typically begin weeks before, typically in early October. This time of the year is a magical time to visit Mexico, as you’ll get to enjoy some of the Day of the Dead decorations, traditions, and spirit. Let’s take a look!


Day of the Dead customs and decorations

Celebrating Day of the Dead isn’t just a one or two-day affair. Many of the Day of the Dead decorations take time to set up, and celebrating this holiday becomes a part of daily life for several weeks.

Altars (Ofrendas)

Altars, or ofrendas, are at the heart of Día de los Muertos celebrations. They’re put together in homes and cemeteries to honor the deceased and are beautifully decorated with photographs of the departed, candles, marigolds (known in Spanish as cempasúchil — one of Mexico’s national flowers), papel picado, and various personal elements.

The ofrendas also include food and beverages that the deceased enjoyed in life, so they’re highly personalized to match the taste and personality of the person they’re honoring. These offerings are believed to welcome the spirits back to the world of the living, allowing them to enjoy the pleasures they had in life.


Food is a critical part of this holiday, with many traditional Mexican dishes prepared and shared among family members. Pan de muerto is a sweet, anise-flavored bread often decorated with bone-shaped pieces. Sugar skulls, or calaveritas de azúcar, are intricately decorated with colorful icing and often feature the names of the deceased. Tamales, mole, and pozole are also commonly made and enjoyed by both the living and the deceased!

Flowers of Día de los Muertos

Marigolds, or cempasúchil, are the most iconic flowers of Día de los Muertos. Known as the “flower of the dead,” Marigolds are believed to guide the spirits to their altars with their bright color and strong scent. The petals are often scattered to form a path, leading the way for the souls to find their way back to the world of the living. Other flowers, such as white baby’s breath and red cockscomb, are also used to adorn the ofrendas and graves, adding to the colorful fragrant atmosphere.

Symbolism of Calaveras

Calaveras, or skulls, are quite simply everywhere on Día de los Muertos. They can be seen in various forms, from sugar skulls to face paint and decorations. These skulls are not meant to be morbid but rather to celebrate the cycle of life and death. They are often adorned with bright colors and intricate designs, representing the joyful and festive nature of the holiday. Calaveras remind us that death is a natural part of life and that our loved ones continue to live in our memories.

La Catrina

La Catrina is one of the most recognizable Día de los Muertos figures. Originally created by artist José Guadalupe Posada and later popularized by Diego Rivera, La Catrina is a skeletal figure dressed in elegant clothing, often with a large, ornate hat. She represents the idea that death comes for everyone, regardless of social status.

La Catrina has become an iconic symbol of the holiday, embodying both the humor and reverence with which Mexicans approach death. People often dress as La Catrina, painting their faces to resemble her and wearing elaborate costumes.

Modern celebrations and variations of Day of the Dead

Today, virtually every family in Mexico, plus millions of families abroad, celebrate Día de los Muertos in some capacity. Children in schools will typically set up a class altar and put up Day of the Dead decorations around the classroom, and each family will celebrate according to their customs. These Day of the Dead traditions vary significantly from place to place, as some places will go all out and decorate the entire city for the holiday.

Day of the dead decorations.

Best places to visit for Día de los Muertos

Visiting Mexico is an excellent idea any time of the year, but visiting during or right before this holiday can be an especially exciting time. Every Mexican city will have some Día de los Muertos decorations in the street, but some go a bit harder than others. Here are the best cities in Mexico to spend the holiday:

Mexico City

Mexico City is an excellent place to spend this holiday. Every November, the megalopolis comes alive with colorful parades, stunning altars, and impressive dance performances. Don’t miss the grand parade along Paseo de la Reforma and the beautifully decorated ofrendas at the Zócalo! Plus, you can explore historical sites like Templo Mayor and soak up the rich culture and history that Mexico City has to offer.

San Andrés Mixquic

This small community about 1.5 hours south of Mexico City is famous for its all-out Día de los Muertos celebrations. The entire community participates in decorating graves with marigolds, candles, and food offerings. The cemetery is lit up beautifully, creating a magical atmosphere. The intimacy and authenticity of Mixquic’s celebrations offer a truly heartwarming and unforgettable experience.

Pátzcuaro, Michoacán

This famous town is centered on an island within Lake Pátzcuaro. Beyond its natural beauty, Pátzcuaro is famous for its serene and mystical celebrations. The town’s indigenous Purépecha traditions

Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Oaxaca City is a fantastic choice thanks to its rich cultural heritage and colorful celebrations. The city’s streets are filled with beautiful sand sculptures, live parades, and intricate altars. The local markets burst with color as they sell traditional crafts, sugar skulls, and marigolds.

Mérida, Yucatán

Mérida offers a unique blend of Mayan traditions and Spanish colonial charm, making it a delightful spot for this holiday. The city’s Paseo de las Ánimas parade is a highlight, where participants wear elaborate costumes and face paint. The festive atmosphere, combined with Mérida’s warm hospitality and delicious Yucatecan cuisine, creates a unique way to celebrate life and death.

San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

San Miguel de Allende, with its picturesque streets and colonial architecture, is one of the most beautiful places you could possibly choose to visit this time of year. The town hosts colorful parades, art installations, and vibrant ofrendas throughout the city. The Jardín Principal becomes the heart of the festivities, where you can enjoy music, dance, and delicious traditional foods. San Miguel’s charm and festive spirit make it an ideal destination.

Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes

Aguascalientes is famous for its Festival de Calaveras, a grand celebration of the skulls that spans several days. The festival features spectacular parades, cultural performances, and exhibitions dedicated to skeleton-themed art. The lively atmosphere is perfect for immersing yourself in the festivities, enjoying local food, and exploring the history of Aguascalientes.

Día de los Muertos in the United States

Día de los Muertos is celebrated in the United States with festivals and parades, especially in states with large Mexican-American communities like California, Texas, and Arizona. Families set up altars in their homes and public spaces, and many communities host community events like face paintings, traditional music and dance performances, and community gatherings in cemeteries. Schools and museums offer educational programs to teach the cultural significance of the holiday.

Mother doing her daughters Dia de los Muertos makeup.

Día de los Muertos in other countries

Although this is a Mexican holiday, it’s also celebrated in various ways across different countries, each adding its unique touch:

  • Guatemala: The holiday includes flying giant kites to communicate with the dead.
  • Spain: The celebrations focus on visiting cemeteries and bringing offerings to graves.
  • Ecuador: Families visit cemeteries and share colada morada, a spiced fruit drink, and guaguas de pan, bread shaped like children.
  • Brazil: The holiday is known as Día de Finados, where families attend Mass and decorate graves with flowers.
  • Peru: Families honor their deceased by gathering in cemeteries, decorating graves with flowers, and sharing traditional foods like leche asada and pan de muerto.
  • Bolivia: Families celebrate Día de los Difuntos by visiting cemeteries, decorating graves with flowers and candles, and preparing bread shaped like human figures called “t’antawawas.”
  • Philippines: Known as Undas, families visit cemeteries to clean and decorate graves, light candles, and share meals and prayers in a blend of indigenous and Catholic traditions.

The Day of the Dead in the arts

If you’ve read this far, then you must already guess that this vibrant and colorful holiday has had an impact on the art world. In fact, art is an integral part of the holiday, not just from all the art involved with setting up the beautiful Day of the Dead decorations and altars but also from the calaveras literarias. Let’s take a look:

Calaveritas — Day of the Dead poems

Calaveritas, or “little skulls,” are a unique part of the celebrations in Mexico. These are short, humorous poems or satirical verses that playfully mock or criticize the living as if written from the perspective of the dead. This literary tradition dates back to the 19th century and has become a beloved cultural expression during the holiday.

The calaveritas often feature rhymed couplets or quatrains, but there isn’t a rigid structure. As long as there are some rhymes in your poem, you’re good! The point isn’t necessarily to create the most perfect rhyme but to develop a creative story that pokes fun at the death of a loved one or famous person.

How to write a Day of the Dead poem or Calaverita literaria

Writing a Day of the Dead poem can be excellent practice for intermediate and advanced Spanish speakers. If you’re still a beginner, you can try writing it in English to join in on the celebrations. Here’s a step-by-step guide to writing your first calavera literaria:

1. Pick your subject

Think of someone you know, a famous person, or a public figure. It could be a friend, a family member, or even your favorite celebrity. The key is to have someone in mind to celebrate with your playful poem.

Note that you’ll typically want to use a living person as the centerpiece of your poem, as you want to poke fun at the fact that death is coming for them! If you used a dead person, it would kind of defeat the purpose.

2. Get into the spirit

Embrace the humor and lightheartedness of this irrevent holiday. Remember, calaveras literarias are meant to be fun and a bit cheeky, not morbid or offensive!

3. Imagine a scenario

Picture a funny or ironic situation involving your subject and La Catrina (death herself!) or the afterlife. Most calaveritas end with La Catrina making a surprise appearance, either implying or mentioning explicitly that they are taking your subject to the afterlife.

Because calaveritas literarias need to rhyme, there are many names used to reference La Catrina, so you have a wider range of words to use for your rhymes! Here are some of the most common ones that you can use in your Day of the Dead poems:

The SkeletonLa Calacala kah-lah-kahla kaˈlaka
The Skinny OneLa Flacala flah-kahla ˈflaka
The Boney OneLa Huesudala oo-eh-soo-dahla weˈsuða
The White OneLa Blancala blahn-kahla ˈβlanka
The Bald OneLa Pelonalah peh-loh-nahla peˈlona
The Grim ReaperLa Parcala par-cala ˈpaɾka
The Lady of DeathLa Señora de la Muertela seh-nyoh-rah deh la moo-air-tehla seˈɲoɾa ðe la ˈmweɾte
The Lady of the ScytheLa Dama de la Guadañala dah-ma deh la goo-ah-dah-nyahla ˈðama ðe la ɣwaˈðaɲa
The Scrawny OneLa Tilicala tee-lee-cahla tiˈlika
The Sad OneLa Tristela trees-tehla ˈtɾiste
The Eternal GirlfriendLa Novia Eternala noh-vee-ah eh-tehr-nahla ˈnoβja eˈteɾna
The Patron Saint of the DeceasedLa Patrona de los Difuntosla pah-troh-nah deh loss dee-foon-toesla paˈtɾona ðe loz ðiˈfuntos
The FriendLa Comadrela koh-mah-drehla koˈmaðɾe
The Cold OneLa Fríala free-ahla ˈfɾia
The Short OneLa Chaparritala cha-pah-ree-tahla ʧapaˈrita

Oh, and since you’ll be taking out your subject at some point during your calaverita, you’ll also want to know a few euphemisms for death in Spanish:

Literal meaningSpanishPronunciationIPAExplanation
To stretch the pawEstirar la pataess-tee-rahr la pah-tahestiˈɾaɾ la ˈpataWhen you die, all your limbs stretch out and get stiff.
To hang up the sneakersColgar los teniscoll-gar loss teh-neesestiˈɾaɾ la ˈpataWhen someone hangs up their sneakers, it means they’ve stopped running around, implying that they’re dead.
To pass to a better lifePasar a mejor vidapah-sahr ah meh-hor vee-dahpaˈsaɾ a meˈxoɾ ˈβiðaSuggests that the deceased has moved on to a more peaceful existence.
To remain stiffQuedar tiesokeh-dahr tee-eh-sokeˈðaɾ ˈtjesoMeans that they’ve become rigid after death.
To kick the bucketPetatearsepeh-tah-teh-are-sehpetateˈaɾseThis is a very informal/slang version to say someone has passed.
To go to the other hoodIrse a otro barrioeer-seh ah oh-troh bah-ree-ohˈiɾse a ˈotɾo ˈβarjoImplies that the person has moved on to another place or realm
To pluck a roosterPelar gallopeh-lar gah-yopeˈlaɾ ˈɣaʝoIn Spanish slang, this phrase means that someone left in a hurry, which can be interpreted as a sudden death in this context.
To remain dryQuedar secokeh-dahr seh-cokeˈðaɾ ˈsekoRefers to the lifeless and dry state of the body.
To fall asleep foreverDormirse para siempredor-meer-seh pah-rah see-ehm-prehdoɾˈmiɾse ˈpaɾa ˈsjempɾeSuggests that the person passed away peacefully
To go with the ancestorsIrse con los antepasadoseer-seh kohn loss ahn-teh-pah-sah-dosˈiɾse kon los antepaˈsaðosPretty self explanatory, right?
To hand in the gearEntregar el equipoehn-treh-gar elle eh-key-poentɾeˈɣaɾ el eˈkipoMeans they’ve completed their task and have returned their gear.
To go to the great beyondIrse al más alláeer-seh all mas ah-yahˈiɾse al ˈmas aˈʝaThe person has moved on to the afterlife.
To pass to better luckPasar a mejor suertepah-sahr ah meh-hor vee-dahpaˈsaɾ a meˈxoɾ ˈsweɾteSuggests that the deceased is now in a better, more fortunate place.
To give the last breathDar el último suspirodar elle ool-tee-mo soos-pee-rohˈdaɾ el ˈultimo susˈpiɾoThey took their final breath.
They went ahead of usSe nos adelantóshe nohs ah-dell-ahn-toese nos aðelanˈtoImplies that they’ve simply gone ahead on the journey that everyone will eventually take.
To see how the flowers grow from belowIr a ver cómo crecen las flores desde abajoeer ah vehr koh-mo kreh-sehn lass flo-rehs dess-deh ah-bah-hoˈiɾ a ˈβeɾ ˈkomo ˈkɾeθen las ˈfloɾez ˈðezðe aˈβaxoThey’re now burried, viewing the flowers from the ground.
To dance with the ugliest oneBailar con la más feabah-e-lahr kohn la mahs feh-ahbajˈlaɾ kon la ˈmas ˈfeaSuggests that they’ve had to face the unpleasant experience of death.
To take someone out feet firstSacar con los pies por delantesah-car kohn los pee-ehssaˈkaɾ kon los ˈpjes poɾ ðeˈlanteSuggests that they’ve died and are being carried out feet first, as is customary with coffins.
The boney one carried him awayLo cargó la huesudalo car-go la ooh-eh-soo-dahlo kaɾˈɣo la weˈsuðaThe boney one, as you know, is a euphemism for death herfself!

4. Rhyme time

Traditional calaveras typically use rhymed couplets or quatrains. Don’t worry about being perfect, though, the goal is to create a catchy and rhythmic flow. Think of it as a playful poem with a twist.

5. Be playful and satirical

Poke gentle fun at your subject’s quirks, habits, or well-known traits. The best calaveras are those that highlight the humorous aspects of the person’s life or personality.

6. Add a twist

End your poem with a twist or a punchline. This could be an unexpected turn of events or a clever remark that wraps up the scenario in a funny or surprising way.

7. Keep it short and sweet

Calaveras are usually short, so aim for a few lines. This keeps the poem lively and engaging, perfect for sharing with others.

8. Share and have a good time!

Share your calaveras with friends and family! Read them aloud (great way to practice your Spanish!), write them in cards, or post them on social media. But most importantly, have fun with them! The whole point of writing calaveritas is to display your creativity and have a laugh, so remember to take it easy.

Examples of calavera literaria in Spanish

So, what do calaveras literarias actually look like? Here are five playful examples! Keep in mind that each of these is very short, but feel free to let your imagination roam free and create a more elaborate story!

La Catrina arrived at the classroom,
with her laugh and great calm,
she told the beloved teacher,
“Today, there’s no homework or noise.”
La Catrina llegó al aula,
con su risa y gran calma,
le dijo al maestro querido,
“Hoy no hay tarea ni ruido.”
The chef was cooking,
when La Flaca called him,
“Leave the pots, good man,
today, we dine in my name.”
El chef cocinando estaba,
cuando La Flaca lo llamaba,
“Deja las ollas, buen hombre,
hoy cenamos en mi nombre.”
He was playing hard on the field,
when the Reaper came to seem,
“Leave the ball, champion,
today I take you to the cemetery.”
En el campo jugaba fuerte,
cuando la Parca vino a verte,
“Deja el balón, campeón,
hoy te llevo al panteón.”
The doctor cured the ill,
not knowing his own end,
The Bald One said: “Faithful friend,
today you’ll be my patient in heaven.”
El doctor curaba el mal,
sin saber su propio final,
La Pelona dijo: “Amigo fiel,
hoy serás mi paciente en el cielo.”
With guitar and song,
the musician in great passion,
La Calaca came to listen,
“Your concert in heaven I want to play.”
Con guitarra y canción,
el músico en gran pasión,
La Calaca vino a escuchar,
“Tu concierto en el cielo quiero tocar.”

Day of the Dead movies

Part of the reason why Día de los Muertos has become such a popular holiday around the world is the recent release of excellent Day of the Dead movies. If you’re unable to visit Mexico during this un holiday season, you can still celebrate at home while enjoying a fun movie night.

1. Coco (2017)

Perhaps the most popular Día de los Muertos movie, Coco follows the adventures of young Miguel as he embarks on a magical adventure in the Land of the Dead to discover his family’s secrets. With stunning animation, catchy music, and heartwarming moments, this Pixar gem beautifully celebrates Mexican culture and the spirit of this holiday.

2. The Book of Life (2014)

Get ready for a feast with The Book of Life, where Manolo, a young bullfighter, traverses magical worlds to reunite with his true love. Filled with colorful characters, stunning visuals, and a fun soundtrack, this movie is a great fun watch for a relaxing afternoon.

3. Spectre (2015)

Were you expecting to see “Bond… James Bond” in an iconic Día de los Muertos movie? No? Then you must check out Spectre! The film opens with a stunning and action-packed sequence set during a Día de los Muertos parade in Mexico City. Fun fact, the parade didn’t actually use to happen before the movie’s release, but the Mexico City government has been hosting these parades every year since!

4. La Leyenda de la Nahuala (2007)

Join Leo San Juan in La Leyenda de la Nahuala as he bravely faces supernatural challenges to save his brother. Legend has it that La Nahuala, an evil witch who lives in an abandoned mansion, needs to take the souls of three children before Día de los Muertos to become powerful enough to take everyone in the city — and she’s already got two. As she takes Nando, Leo’s brother, he enlists the help of his grandma to take his brother back.

5. Salma’s Big Wish (2019)

Join Salma in this fun animated film that follows the 16-year-old protagonist as she embarks on a magical journey to connect with her long-lost parents. Set in the Mexican town of Santa Clara, this heartwarming movie blends humor, colorful visuals, and many Día de los Muertos traditions. Perfect for a fun family movie night!

Day of the Dead books

Another way to get in the spirit of Día de los Muertos is to read some mystical novels about the afterlife. The following are some great novels from Mexican authors that deal with the supernatural — perfect way to get in the mood!

1. Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

Largely considered one of the most influential writers of Spanish literature from the 20th century, Juan Rulfo created one of the most iconic novels you could read on Día de los Muertos. It’s set in the ghostly town of Comala, where a man searches for his father among spirits and echoes of the past. This haunting novel is a masterpiece of magical realism and deeply rooted in Mexican folklore, making it a perfect read for the season.

2. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Join Casiopea Tun on an epic journey with the Mayan god of death in Gods of Jade and Shadow. Set in the Jazz Age, this enchanting novel bends mythology, romance, and adventure, taking readers on a captivating ride through the Yucatán Peninsula — and the underworld!

3. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

One of the most impactful books by a Mexican author of the late 20th century, Como Agua Para Chocolate follows the magical tale of Tita, whose emotions infuse the food she cooks. This book combines romance, tradition, and magical realism, offering a deliciously fascinating story that reflects Mexican traditions and Mexican cuisine.

4. The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

Explore the life of Teresita, the Saint of Cabora, in “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.” Based on true events, this novel weaves a mesmerizing tale of mysticism, indigenous culture, and spiritual awakening, set against the backdrop of Mexican traditions and its revolutionary era.

5. Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores

This book will take you on a surreal ride where a near-future dystopia meets Mexican folklore. This novel blends adventure, mystery, and some supernatural elements, offering a unique narrative that fits the spirit of the holiday very well.

Day of the Dead vocabulary

If you’re already deep in your Spanish learning journey, then you might want to pick up some useful Day of the Dead vocabulary to help you navigate all kinds of situations around this time.

Marigold flowerCempasúchilsem-pah-soo-cheelθempaˈsuʧil
Velvet flowerFlor de terciopeloflohr deh tehr-see-oh-peh-loˈfloɾ ðe teɾθjoˈpelo
Perforated paper artPapel picadopah-pel pee-kah-dohpaˈpel piˈkaðo
Sugar skullCalaverita de azúcarkah-lah-veh-ree-tah deh ah-soo-kahrkalaβeˈɾita ðe aˈθukaɾ
Aztec underworldMictlánmeek-tlahnmiktˈlan
Iconic female skeletonLa Catrinalah kah-tree-nahla kaˈtɾina
Percussion instrumentMarimbamah-reen-bahmaˈɾimba
Nine-day prayerNovenarionoh-veh-nah-ree-ohnoβeˈnaɾjo
Eternal restDescanso eternodehs-kahn-soh eht-air-nohdesˈkanso eˈteɾno
Spirit animalAlebrijeah-leh-bree-hehaleˈβɾixe
Regional festivalXantoloshahn-toh-lohsanˈtolo
Path of flowersCamino de floreskah-mee-noh deh floh-reskaˈmino ðe ˈfloɾes

Offerings and decorations

If you’re taking Spanish classes in Mexico, you might be tasked with setting up a Day of the Dead altar in class! Here are some helpful vocab words that can help you be better prepared for this exciting activity.

Flower vaseFloreroflo-reh-rohfloˈɾeɾo
StarlightLuz de las estrellaslooz deh lass ess-treh-yasˈluð ðe las esˈtɾeʝas
Blessed soulAlma benditaall-mah behn-dee-taˈalma βenˈdita
Ancestral beliefsCreencias ancestraleskreh-ehn-see-ahs ahn-ses-tra-lesskɾeˈenθjas anθesˈtɾales
Religious servicesOficios religiososoh-fee-see-oss reh-lee-he-oh-sosoˈfiθjoz reliˈxjosos
Traditional atireVestimenta tradicionalvess-tee-mehn-tah trah-dee-see-oh-nallbestiˈmenta tɾaðiθjoˈnal
Natural flowersFlores naturalesfloh-ress na-too-rah-lessˈfloɾez natuˈɾales

Food and beverage

As is the case with most Mexican celebrations, food and drinks are big, big parts of the Day of the Dead celebrations. Although you can run into any type of food on an altar (remember, the food should reflect the preferences of the deceased!), these are some of the most traditional Día de los Muertos foods:

Day of the Dead bread.

Day of the Dead breadPan de muertopahn deh moo-air-toeˈpan de ˈmweɾto
Mole sauceMolemoh-lehˈmole
Corn-based drinkAtoleah-toe-lehaˈtole
Chocolate-flavored atoleChampurradocham-poo-rah-doeʧampuˈraðo
Coffee with cinnamon and piloncilloCafé de ollacah-feh deh oh-yahkaˈfe ðe ˈoʝa
Hibiscus iced teaAgua de jamaicaah-goo-ah deh hah-my-cahˈaɣwa ðe xaˈmajka
Rice-based drink with cinnamonHorchatahor-cha-tahoɾˈʧata

Family and ancestry

Of course, celebrating Día de los Muertos involves celebrating one’s family and ancestry. Here are some popular Spanish family vocabulary words that will help you honor your loved ones on this holiday:

Uncles and auntsTíostee-ossˈtios
Family tiesLazos familiareslah-sohs fah-me-lee-ah-ressˈlaθos famiˈljaɾes
Family treeÁrbol genealógicoar-boll heh-ne-ah-lo-he-kohˈaɾβol xeneaˈloxiko

Common phrases involving Day of the Dead

Finally, there are certain common phrases that you might want to include in your altar or in a letter to your loved ones. These are some common phrases about honoring the dead that tend to come up during this celebration:

We remember our loved ones with love.Recordamos con amor a nuestros seres queridos.reh-kor-dah-mos kon ah-mor ah noo-ehs-tros seh-res keh-ree-dosrekoɾˈðamos kon aˈmoɾ a ˈnwestɾos ˈseɾes keˈɾiðos ‖
Death isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.La muerte no es final, es solo el principio.lah mwer-teh noh ehs fee-nal, ehs soh-loh ehl preen-see-pyola ˈmweɾte ˈno ˈes fiˈnal | ˈes ˈsolo el pɾinˈθipjo ‖
The memory of our ancestors lives in our hearts.La memoria de nuestros ancestros vive en nuestros corazones.lah meh-mo-ree-ah de noo-ehs-tros an-sehs-tros vee-veh ehn noo-ehs-tros koh-rah-soh-nessla meˈmoɾja ðe ˈnwestɾos anˈθestɾoz ˈβiβe en ˈnwestɾos koɾaˈθones ‖
Let’s honor those who are no longer with us.Honremos a los que ya no están con nosotros.ohn-reh-mos ah lohs keh yah noh ehs-tahn kon noh-soh-trosonˈremos a los ˈke ʝa ˈno esˈtan kon noˈsotɾos ‖
Let’s celebrate the Day of the Dead with joy and respect.Celebremos el Día de los Muertos con alegría y respeto.seh-leh-breh-mos ehl dee-ah deh lohs mwer-tos kon ah-leh-gree-ah ee rehs-peh-tohθeleˈβɾemos el ˈdia ðe loz ˈmweɾtos kon aleˈɣɾia j resˈpeto ‖
The altars are full of offerings for our deceased.Los altares están llenos de ofrendas para nuestros difuntos.lohs ahl-tah-res ehs-tahn yeh-nos deh oh-fren-dahs pah-rah noo-ehs-tros dee-foon-toslos alˈtaɾes esˈtan ˈʝenoz ðe oˈfɾendas ˈpaɾa ˈnwestɾoz ðiˈfuntos ‖
Death is part of life and today, we embrace it.La muerte es parte de la vida y hoy la abrazamos.lah mwer-teh ehs pahr-teh deh lah vee-dah ee oy la ah-brah-sah-mosla ˈmweɾte ˈes ˈpaɾte ðe la ˈβiða j ˈoj la aβɾaˈθamos ‖
May the candles guide the souls to the altar.Que las velas guíen a las almas hacia el altar.keh lahs veh-las gee-ehn ah lahs ahl-mas ah-see-ah ehl ahl-tarˈke laz ˈβelaz ˈɣien a la las ˈalmas ˈaθja el alˈtaɾ ‖
La Catrina reminds us that we’re all equal in death.La Catrina nos recuerda que todos somos iguales ante la muerte.lah kah-tree-nah noah reh-kwehr-dah keh toh-dos soh-mos ee-gwah-lehs ahn-teh lah mwer-tehla kaˈtɾina noz reˈkweɾða ˈke ˈtoðos ˈsomos iˈɣwales ˈante la ˈmweɾte ‖
Today, we share tamales, mole, and pan de muerto.Hoy compartimos tamales, mole, y pan de muerto.oy kom-par-tee-mos tah-mah-lehs, mo-leh ee pahn deh mwer-toeˈoj kompaɾˈtimos taˈmales | ˈmole | i ˈpan de ˈmweɾto ‖
The marigolds illuminate the path to Mictlán.El cempasúchil ilumina el camino hacia el Mictlán.ehl sem-pah-soo-cheel ee-loo-mee-nah ehl kah-mee-noh ah-see-ah ehl meek-tlahnel θempaˈsuʧil iluˈmina el kaˈmino ˈaθja el miktˈlan ‖
Let’s toast with mezcal to life and death.Brindemos con mezcal por la vida y la muerte.breen-deh-mos kon mehs-kahl por lah vee-dah ee lah mwer-tehbɾinˈdemos kom meθˈkal poɾ la ˈβiða j la ˈmweɾte ‖
The alebrijes accompany us in this celebration.Los alebrijes nos acompañan en esta celebración.lohs ah-leh-bree-hehs nohs ah-kom-pah-nyahn ehn ehs-tah seh-leh-brah-see-ohnlos aleˈβɾixez nos akomˈpaɲan en ˈesta θeleβɾaˈθjon ‖
Memories are the real treasure of life.Los recuerdos son el verdadero tesoro de la vida.lohs reh-kwer-dos sohn ehl vehr-dah-deh-roh teh-soh-roh deh la vee-dahloz reˈkweɾðos ˈson el βeɾðaˈðeɾo teˈsoɾo ðe la ˈβiða ‖
The marimba music brings joy to everyone’s hearts.La música de la marimba alegra los corazones de todos.lah moo-see-kah deh lah mah-reem-bah ah-leh-grah los koh-rah-soh-nes deh toh-dosla ˈmusika ðe la maˈɾimba aˈleɣɾa los koɾaˈθonez ðe ˈtoðos ‖
The Xoloitzcuintle guides the souls on their journey to the afterlife.El Xoloitzcuintle guía a las almas en su viaje al más allá.el sho-lo-eets-kween-tleh gee-ah ah las ahl-mas en soo vee-ah-heh al mahs ah-yahel solojtθˈkwintle ˈɣia a las ˈalmas en su ˈβjaxe al ˈmas aˈʝa ‖
The sugar skulls sweeten the Day of the Dead.Las calaveritas de azúcar endulzan el Día de los Muertos.las kah-lah-veh-ree-tahs deh ah-soo-kahr en-dool-sahn ehl dee-ah deh los moo-air-toeslas kalaβeˈɾitaz ðe aˈθukaɾ enˈdulθan el ˈdia ðe loz ˈmweɾtos ‖
A lit candle reminds us of the presence of the deceased.Una veladora encendida nos recuerda la precencia de los difuntos.oo-nah veh-lah-door-ah ehn-sehn-dee-dah nos reh-coo-air-dah la preh-sehn-see-ah deh loss dee-foon-toes.ˈuna βelaˈðoɾa enθenˈdiða noz reˈkweɾða la pɾeˈθenθja ðe loz ðiˈfuntos ‖
The souls that visit us today will always be a part of us.Las almas que nos visitan hoy siempre serán parte de nosotros.lahs ahl-mas keh noss vee-see-tahn oy see-ehm-preh seh-rahn pahr-teh deh noh-soh-trohslas ˈalmas ˈke noz βiˈsitan ˈoj ˈsjempɾe seˈɾam ˈpaɾte ðe noˈsotɾos ‖
Today, we join in prayer for eternal rest.Hoy nos unimos en una oración por el descanso eterno.oy noah oo-nee-mohs ehn oo-nah oh-rah-see-ohn pohr ehl dehs-kahn-soh eh-teh-nohˈoj nos uˈnimos en ˈuna oɾaˈθjom poɾ el desˈkanso eˈteɾno ‖
May the incense carry our prayers to the afterlife.Que el incienso lleve nuestras oraciones al más allá.keh ehl een-see-ehn-soh yeh-veh noo-ess-trahs oh-rah-see-oh-ness all mahs ah-yahˈke el inˈθjenso ˈʝeβe ˈnwestɾas oɾaˈθjones al ˈmas aˈʝa ‖
The path of flowers guides the souls to their home.El camino de flores guía las almas a su hogar.ehl cah-me-no deh lass floh-ress gee-ah lass ahl-mahs ah soo oh-gahrel kaˈmino ðe ˈfloɾez ˈɣia las ˈalmas a sw oˈɣaɾ ‖
To remember is to keep alive the memory of our loved ones.Recordar es mantener viva la memoria de nuestros seres queridos.reh-core-dahr ess mahn-teh-nehsr vee-va la meh-mo-ree-ah deh noo-ess-trohs seh-rehs keh-ree-dohsrekoɾˈðaɾ ˈez manteˈneɾ ˈβiβa la meˈmoɾja ðe ˈnwestɾos ˈseɾes keˈɾiðos ‖
The spirits dance with us tonight.Los espíritus danzan junto a nosotros esta noche.lohs ehs-pee-ree-toos dahn-sahn hoon-toh ah noh-soh-trohs ehs-tah noh-chehlos esˈpiɾituz ˈðanθan ˈxunto a noˈsotɾos ˈesta ˈnoʧe ‖
The Day of the Dead festivities are an ancestral legacy.La festividad del Día de los Muertos es un legado ancestral.lah fehs-tee-vee-dahd dehl dee-ah deh lohs mwair-tohs ehs oon leh-gah-goh ahn-sehs-trahlla festiβiˈðað ðel ˈdia ðe loz ˈmweɾtos ˈes un leˈɣaðo anθesˈtɾal ‖
May the marimba and drums accompany this celebration.Que la marimba y los tambores acompañen esta celebración.keh lah mah-reem-bah ee lohs tahm-boh-rehs ah-kohm-pah-nyen ehs-tah seh-leh-brah-see-ohnˈke la maˈɾimba j los tamˈboɾes akomˈpaɲen ˈesta θeleβɾaˈθjon ‖
The altar is ready to receive our deceased.El altar está listo para recibir a nuestros difuntos.ehl ahl-tahr ehs-tah lees-toh pah-rah reh-see-beer ah noo-ehs-trohs dee-foon-tohsel alˈtaɾ esˈta ˈlisto ˈpaɾa reθiˈβiɾ a ˈnwestɾoz ðiˈfuntos ‖
Today, we celebrate life and death, two sides of the same coin.Hoy celebramos la vida y la muerte, dos caras de la misma moneda.oy seh-leh-brah-mohs lah vee-dah ee lah mwair-teh, dohs kah-rahs deh lah mees-mah moh-neh-dahˈoj θeleˈβɾamoz la ˈβiða j la ˈmweɾte | ˈdos ˈkaɾaz ðe la ˈmizma moˈneða ‖
May the offerings be the bridge between the world of the living and the dead.Que las ofrendas sean el puente entre el mundo de los vivos y el de los muertos.keh lahs oh-fren-dahs seh-ahn ell poo-ehn-teh ehn-treh ehl moon-doe deh los vee-vohs e ehl deh loss moo-air-toesˈke las oˈfɾendas ˈseann el ˈpwente ˈentɾe el ˈmundo ðe loz ˈβiβos j el de loz ˈmweɾtos ‖
Our prayers and songs honor those who have left us.Nuestras oraciones y cantos honran a aquellos que nos han dejado.noo-ehs-trahs oh-rah-see-oh-ness e cahn-toes ohn-rahn ahn ah-keh-yos keh noss ahn deh-hah-doeˈnwestɾas oɾaˈθjones i ˈkantos ˈonran a aˈkeʝos ˈke nos ˈan deˈxaðo ‖

FAQs about Day of the Dead

Is Day of the Dead the same as Halloween?

No, Day of the Dead has nothing to do with Halloween. While both holidays happen around the same time and involve spooky themes of death, they’re culturally very different. Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a Mexican tradition focused on honoring and celebrating deceased loved ones by setting up altars and hosting family gatherings. Halloween typically involves costumes, trick-or-treating, and all kinds of spooky decorations.

Who is the Lady of the Dead?

The Lady of the Dead is the goddess Mictecacihuatl, according to Aztec mythology. She rules the underworld (Mictlan) alongside her husband, Mictlantecuhtli. Mictecacihuatl oversees the festivals of the dead and is believed to protect the spirits of the deceased. Her role in pre-Columbian traditions has significantly influenced the modern celebrations of Día de los Muertos, blending ancient beliefs with contemporary customs.

What is the Flower of the Dead?

The Flower of the Dead is the marigold, known in Spanish and “cempasúchil.” Marigolds are widely used during the festival to decorate altars and graves. If you visit Mexico City during this time, you’ll get to see the planters along Paseo de la Reforma fully covered in cempasúchiles.

Is Day of the Dead a Catholic holiday?

Day of the Dead isn’t strictly a Catholic holiday, but it incorporates some elements of Catholicism. The celebration blends indigenous Mesoamerican traditions with Spanish Catholic practices, particularly All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. While its origins are rooted in pre-Columbian rituals honoring the dead, the influence of Catholicism has shaped modern observance, with the result being a unique cultural fusion.

Honor your loved ones

We get it. It might feel weird to throw a party when you’re going through grief or when you’re sad about missing a loved one who’s gone too soon. However, embracing the festive spirit of Día de los Muertos can help give you a new perspective on your relationship with your loved ones. They might no longer be with us, but they’d surely want us to be happy for them! And, who knows, if our celebrations are big enough, perhaps their spirit will come join in on the fun.

If this blog has piqued your interest, make sure to check out the rest of our Spanish blog! We regularly publish all kinds of cultural and vocabulary blogs, from our guide to Colombian culture to our ultimate list of Spanish false friends!

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