Dia de los Muertos, which takes place from November 1 to November 2, is a day to remember and honor ancestors. The holiday is celebrated throughout Latin America and especially in Mexico, where the tradition originates, and is effectively a fusion between indigenous Aztec beliefs and Catholic influences.
Despite its name, Dia de Los Muertos—also known as Day of the Dead—is about the living as well as the dead. The holiday’s ceremonies are meant to bridge the gap between the living and the dead by commemorating those who came before us. Traditions include gathering at cemeteries, creating ofrendas (altars), laying out marigold floral arrangements, making calaveras (edible skulls made of sugar), eating a bread known as pan de muerto, and decorating with La Catrina, the recognizable image of a lithe skeleton, normally wearing a hat and a colorful dress.
La Catrina (whose official name, “La Calavera Catrina,” translates to “the elegant skeleton”) originated in satirical cartoons by Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose art poked fun at the social unrest and hypocrisy in the country in the 1910s. While creating his renowned (and skeleton) figures, Posada was inspired by Mictecacihuatl, the skull-headed Aztec deity of death. One such figure was in the focus of Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” now dressed in a frock and hat. As a result, a lasting image was created, in dialogue with old tradition and contemporary sensibility, much like the festival itself.
Curandera Rocky Seker of Oaxaca City said that the city pulls together to produce an amazing display during the multi-day event. While the holiday is celebrated throughout Mexico, Oaxaca is considered the epicenter of the festivities.
A public altar in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“The community constructs enormous altars with beautifully dressed skeletons in traditional clothing, flowers, food offerings, and candles, as well as pictures of ancestors, relatives, famous Mexican figures, and, of course, Mother Santa Muerte,” Seker explains, adding that fireworks are set off in town to honor the deceased.
Spiritually, the festival corresponds to ideas about the afterlife. During his time, the veil between the realm of the living and dead is considered to be thinner than the rest of the year. People who celebrate believe that departed spirits may enter the earthly world.
Day of the Dead traditional sweets.
“This custom is founded in the indigenous Mexican philosophy that life on Earth is a preparation for the next world, and the significance of having a close contact with the deceased,” Juan Aguirre, Executive Director of the Mexican cultural non-profit Mano a Mano, previously told Oprah Daily.
Visitations from the departed Make Dia de los Muertos a festive occasion with energetic and colorful events. “It’s a time to spend with family and friends. My family and ancestors have shaped who I am, which is why I honor them on this day,” Bri Luna, owner and creative director of The Hoodwitch, tells Oprah Daily.
Even if you’re not living in a place where Dia de Los Muertos parades pass down the streets, there’s a way to celebrate in your own home. Rituals for responsibly honoring the festival are provided below by Latinx practitioners.
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Create an ofrenda.
Many Dia de los Muertos festivities include ofrendas, or altars. Those who celebrate build altars in their homes or at loved ones’ graves. Altars are an important part of respecting and paying homage to the deceased, as it shows that they are always in our thoughts.
A Day of the Dead altar in Mexico.
Photos, chalices, colorful paper cutouts (papel picado), bottles of liquor, candles, water, the deceased’s favorite dish, and, most notably, marigold flowers are often used to adorn ofrendas. Nicknamed “flowers of the dead” for its prominent place in the holiday celebration, the cempasuchil flower (or Mexican marigold) is said to attract spirits with its sweet scent and bright hue.
Luna has been doing the same Day of the Dead ceremony since she was a toddler. “I built up a massive altar with my grandmother’s image, as well as my grandfather’s, stepdad’s, and those who’ve died away. Then, I place marigold flowers, sweets like pan dulce, skeleton figures, and water to honor the people in my life who are no longer living,” Luna says.
This Christmas season, Michael Cardenas, a professional witch and proprietor of Olde Ways, will pay tribute to his grandmother. Cardenas’ grandmother, Mama Lola, taught him how to read tarot cards and encouraged him on his path to become a magical practitioner. In her honor, he intends to place tequila and smokes, two of her favorite things, on his altar.
Cleanse the energy of your home.
During Day of the Dead, the border that separates the land of the living and the land of the dead is believed to be thinner than usual. How about inviting your spirits in? Prepare your house for their presence by cleaning and preparing it. Luna recommends opening up windows and burning copal resin, said to guide the spirits home to their families.
Set out a feast.
Remember, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life and the connections that bind us. What better way to feel connected than with a special lunch that also includes some of the holiday’s traditional foods?
During their Dia de Los Muertos dinners, most families leave an empty place setting for the departed and cook their favorite foods. “If you’re not sure what your ancestors ate, you may cook anything you want,” Cardenas explains. “Since they are descended from you, it is fair to assume that they will love the same meals as you.”
Set out some calaveras, which are sugar skulls, for dessert. Calaveras are placed on ofrendas and are eaten as a holiday treat.
Pan de Muerto a Day of the Dead festival.
Visit the cemetery.
Graveyards become meeting places during Dia de los Muertos. “There are parties inside the graveyard,” Cardenas remembers. “Some families hire mariachi bands to play music, and they drink at the cemetery to celebrate with the deceased.”
If you’re afraid of visiting a graveyard because you’re superstitious, Cardenas has a suggestion: To show respect to the land and prevent “carrying spirits home,” leave nine dimes at the gate on your way in or out of the cemetery. Why are there nine dimes? According to Cardenas, the number nine is related with the dead and endings, and dimes used to be produced with silver, which was thought to be a type of energy protection.
Adorned graves on the Day of the Dead in Mexico.
Pass down family stories.
Arhinna Luciano, a life coach, tells her children stories about family members to keep their memories alive. “I utilize this opportunity to tell my girls tales about growing up with their great-grandparents. “I also encourage them to tell me about my mother,” Luciano adds.
This year, she will pay tribute to her family by cooking up some capirotada, a kind of Mexican bread pudding that’s one of her mom’s and grandma’s favorite desserts. “When we listen to Vicente Fernandez and other classics, we’ll create this as a family,” she adds.
Drink cacao, or hot chocolate.
Dia de los Muertos, for all of its festive festivities, can be a sad holiday. Luciano sweetens the occasion by creating cacao, a hot, chocolaty drink made from cacao paste (though she says a steaming cup of hot chocolate works, too). She and her girls will flavor the traditional Mayan beverage with cinnamon to represent love and plenty, and vanilla for sweetness.
“The warmth of the cacao represents us opening our hearts as we connect with the planet and all those who came before us,” Luciano adds, adding that the drink also commemorates her Mayan ancestors.
Raise a glass to those who came before you.
Have a few…spirits to connect with the spirits. In her city of Oaxaca, Seker says, residents pour mezcal in ofrendas, but she’s going to raise a glass of bourbon for her ancestors. After all, Day of the Dead ceremonies may be tailored to your preferences.
Toasting to the lives of the departed may entice them to come back to Earth—but it’s definitely a way to remember them. It is the essence of Dia de los Muertos.
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Lisa Stardust is a pop culture horoscope astrologer, tarot card reader, energy healer, and manifestation guide located in New York City. She is the author of Saturn Return Survival Guide: Navigating This Cosmic Rite of Passage, The Astrology Deck: Your Guide to the Meanings and Myths of the Cosmos, and Love Deck: 70 Cards to Ignite Attraction, Passion, and Romance. Her art and writing have appeared in The Today Show, Oprah Daily, Vogue, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, and InStyle, in addition to Women’s Health. Lisa, who comes from a long family of spiritual healers, has been professionally practicing astrology for over 15 years but has been studying the stars her whole life.