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By Lia Blanchard

Most Americans recognize Halloween as a day of Celtic origin, when “the veil between the worlds is thin” and ghosts and spirits of the dead can more easily make themselves heard. Many American communities with a large Latino population also remember their dearly departed at this time of year, although the intentions and origins are quite different.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico, Latin America, and Spain. It’s a festival in which beloved friends and family who have died are welcomed home for a visit. While specific practices vary from region to region and town to town, and the time frame varies from one day to several weeks, it is always a very colorful and festive time, often more important even than Christmas.

In the Community

Preparations may begin weeks earlier, when families visit the graves of the deceased, clean them and decorate them with altars and mementos. Calaveras, skulls, are the symbol of the death/life cycle and are seen everywhere. Particularly popular are sugar skulls, either homemade or store bought, elaborately decorated and given as gifts. Many communities have giant parades, and there is always much music and dancing.

Sugar skulls for sale

In the Home

Tiered altars dedicated to departed loved ones feature prominently in homes during this time. An altar, or ofrenda, will include garland or sugar cane stalks fashioned into an arching doorway through which the spirits can re-enter the world of the living to partake in the celebration. Welcoming them home are symbols of the four elements, ready to assist the journey:

Earth: Food. Special bread called pan de muerto, fruit, mole, chocolate.

Air: Papel picado,colorful punched paper with Day of the Dead designs.

Fire: Candles to light the way, often arranged in a cross formation.

Water: To quench the thirst of the dead, offered in a clay pitcher or glass.

Other items that are often placed upon the Dia de los Muertos altar include photographs, flowers, toys, and other mementos meaningful to the spirit. Build your own virtual altar at the Smithsonian Latino Center.


Mesoamericans have had traditions of remembering and celebrating the deceased for thousands of years. Even the Spanish conquistadors, whose arrival devastated many other aspects of the indigenous culture, did not destroy these celebrations. Indeed, the Spanish clergymen themselves had customs of giving offerings to the dead, and likened the native gods to Catholic saints. Eventually, the practices merged and took place on All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2).

Is there a Dia de los Muertos celebration near you? What is it like?