What Is 'Día De Los Muertos'? 12 Symbolisms You Must Know To Understand 'Day Of The Dead'

Dia de los muertos
Food, music, parades and plenty of color are some of the characteristics of this Mexican celebration. Shutterstock/AGCuesta

The “Día de los Muertos” tradition focuses on celebrating and remembering friends and family who have passed on to a better life. One of the most important elements during this celebration is “El Altar de Muertos,” which is a shrine containing items that are considered offerings from loved ones to their “muertitos,” such as their favorite food, drinks, desserts, or anything that meant something to them while they were alive.

In some places in Mexico, like Oaxaca, “El Día de los Muertos” is seen as way more than just a holiday. On this day, family members remember the people they have lost and celebrate their death as if they were still alive, with music, food, parades, fireworks, and an array of colors that make everyone feel as if they never left.

It is important to remember that the “Day of the Dead” holiday is divided in two days: "Angelitos/Todos los Santos" (November 1st) and "Fieles Difuntos" (November 2nd). Like we said before, this Mexican holiday focuses in honoring the dead and in order to have a better understanding of everything that goes on in these two days, here are some words you need to be familiar with:

1) Altar: As stated before, many people make altars or “ofrendas” (offerings) in their homes to honor their loved ones who have died.

2) Ofrenda (Offering): It is used to refer to the things that are placed on the altar for the spirits. Sometimes the altar itself is refered to as an “ofrenda.”

3) Calavera: A “calavera” is a skull, a “calaverita” is a little skull, and a “calavera de azúcar” is a sugar skull. These are placed on the altar and often have the name of the deceased person inscribed on the forehead.

4) Pan de muerto (Bread of the Dead): It is one of most associated foods with Day of the Dead and can vary greatly from region to region. It is often placed on the altar but can also be consumed and dunked in coffee or hot chocolate.

5) Cempasúchil (“Flor de Muerto”): Is a flower used in Day of the Dead altars and to decorate graves. It grows plentifully at this time of year in Mexico and its pungent odor is said to attract the spirits who come to visit their mortal loved ones on this day.

6) Copal: Copal incense was burned in Mesoamerica in ancient times and is still burned for special ceremonies and is often placed on or near Day of the Dead altars as another olfactory element to draw in the spirits. The word copal comes from the Náhuatl word "copalli" which means, "incense."

7) Papel picado: Decoratively cut paper used in Mexico for all holidays and fiestas. During the “Día de los Muertos” celebration it is placed around the edges of the altar, which adds color to the table. Some say that the four elements are represented with different items at the altar and the movement of the “papel picado” represents air.

8) Tapete de arena: In some regions of Mexico sand sculptures or tapestries ("tapetes de arena") are a vital part of the celebration. These are created with sand and pigment and sometimes other elements such as seeds, beans, flower petals and sawdust, and may depict religious themes, but more often depict death in a playful manner.

9) Angelitos: “Angelitos” means little angels. On Halloween night, children who have passed away are believed to return and stay through November 1st.

10) Calaca: This is a Mexican Spanish slang word for skeleton. “Calacas” figure prominently in Day of the Dead decorations. Sometimes the term "La Calaca" is used to signify death personified.

11) La Catrina: Is a female skeleton dressed in the style of upper-class women of the 1900s created by Mexican lithographer and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. Originally used to depict contemporary figures as skeletons in a humorous way as a form of social commentary, the illustration has become a prominent figure in Day of the Dead decorations and celebrations.

12) Comparsa: A carnival-like celebration in which people dress up in costumes and dance. Comparsas play an important part in Oaxaca's Day of the Dead celebrations, where costumes are incredibly creative and surprising.

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Maria G. Valdez

Maria was born and raised in Dominican Republic, where she began her career in journalism covering human interest stories, entertainment, beauty and wellness for a national magazine. She moved to New York City to study Musical Theatre, but went back to journalism after graduating in an attempt of becoming the Latina Carrie Bradshaw. She has an unhealthy obsession with JLo and claims to be Sofia Vergara’s long-lost daughter, and has tried a crazy amount of treatments to keep looking young. She became a Zumba instructor for fun.

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