In pre-Hispanic times, the celebration of death was one of the most important elements of Mexican culture. In fact, relatives of the deceased organized a party in order to guide the soul on their journey to Mictlán.
Día de Muertos celebrates the transitory return of the souls of the deceased to their homes, to the world of the living, to spend time with their relatives and to nourish themselves with the food that is offered to them at the altars placed in their honor.
In this celebration, death symbolizes life, which materializes in the altar offered by the relatives of the deceased. Día de Muertos is a celebration that has a great importance to Mexican people because it has different meanings, from philosophical to material.
The celebration of Día de Muertos takes place on November 1st and 2nd since it is divided into categories: according to the Catholic calendar, November 1st corresponds to Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints Day), a day dedicated to the deceased children, and on November 2nd to Día de los Muertos (Faithful Departed Day), dedicated to deceased adults.
But the traditions of Día de Muertos last more than just two days. We are more than pleased to explain the celebration day by day!
- October 27th: This is the day that pets return from the world of the dead.
- October 28th: The first candle is turned on and a white flower is placed to receive all the souls that died tragically.
- October 29th: A glass of water is added to the altar for all the people who drowned or died of thirst.
- October 30th: People add a white bread to the altar for the deceased who left without eating or those who suffered an accident.
- October 31st: Now, fruits are placed for the unborn, the unbaptized people and all the ancestors.
- November 1st: Día de Todos los Santos. Sweet food and marigold flowers are placed for those who died as children and those who had a great meaningful life.
- November 2nd: Día de Muertos. All the food and drinks that the deceased liked when they were alive are placed at the altar. These include tequila, copal, incense, sugar skulls, confetti…
- November 3rd: The last white candle is lit, copal incense is burned, people say goodbye to their dead loved ones and ask them to return next year.
The Meaning of each Element of the Día de Muertos Altar
As you can see, the offering of Día de Muertos must have several essential elements. If one of them is missing, the spiritual charm that surrounds this religious heritage is weakened. Each of the following elements contains its own history, tradition, poetry and, more than anything, mysticism!
Glass of Water: The source of life, it can’t be absent. It’s offered to quench the visitor’s thirst after their long journey to what was their home on Earth.
Marigold or Cempasúchil Flower: On Día de Muertos, this flower is used as decoration and ritual offering. It’s common to use its petals to mark on the ground the path that souls must follow to the altars made in their honor. The petals are also used to create necklaces as a symbol of bliss.
Make these magical and fun sweet potato chips inspired by the marigold petals of a Día de Muertos altar!
Pan de Muerto: Pan de Muerto, which is made only at this time of the year, has several meanings. The crossed strips on top of the bread represent the cross of Christ. Each of the strips on the bark represents the bones of the deceased. The sesame seeds represent the tears of the souls that didn’t find rest.
Bake a traditional Pan de Muerto and fill your home with the enticing aroma of freshly baked spiced bread on Dia de Muertos.
Candles: The candles make the fire present on the altar, and this is offered as a guide to the souls to light the way back to their homes. The tradition is to put four candles in the shape of a cross and the cardinal points. In some places, each candle represents a deceased relative that the family is expecting.
Salt: Within an offering of the dead you cannot forget about salt, since it’s considered an element of purification. With this element, the soul of the deceased is not corrupted during its journey.
Sugar Skulls: In addition to being colorfully adorned, many of them bear the name of the deceased. Sugar skulls are thought to be the favorite food of the spirits, and represent a present that symbolizes life after death.
Incense and Copal: Cleans and purifies the environment from the spirits that may want to do harm.
Deceased Portrait: Sometimes, the photo is placed hidden so that it can only be seen with a mirror. This implies that the deceased is seen but no longer exists in the world of the living.
Food and Liquor: The food is served to delight the deceased with their favorite dishes, and the liquor is for them to remember the good times they had during their lives.
In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared this festivity as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, due to its importance and meaning since it is a traditional, integrating and a representative expression of Mexican culture.
Día de Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico, with some variations depending on the region or state. Here are the 10 best places to celebrate Día de los Muertos!