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El Dia de los Muertos Traditions

Updated on March 26, 2016
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Jaynie is from Madison, WI but has traveled extensively. Her family speaks 4 languages, making the world very accessible.

Pristine cartera turkus
Pristine cartera turkus

Traditions of El Dia De Los Muertos

El dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is a rich holiday that originated in Mexico as a means of commemorating departed friends and family members. The “day” is actually celebrated over three days, beginning on October 31 and ending on November 2, a period of time referred to as Allhallowtide. Allhallowtide includes All Hallows’ Eve, Hallowmas (All Saint’s Day) and All Souls’ Day. These days of remembrance were originally set aside by Pope Gregory III in the 700s and were deemed mandatory days of remembrance by Louis the Pious in 835. During Allhallowtide, the faithf ul citizens of Rome were to pay homage to departed loved ones, martyrs, saints and all departed faithful Christians.


In Mexico and other Hispanic and Latin American cultures, rituals include the building of private altars (ofrendas). Ofrendas are often ornate, large structures built to welcome the dead to their place of remembrance. Ofrendas typically have three levels the lowest of which features candles, mirrors and tubs of water with soaps and other toiletries so that the departed can view themselves while freshening up for their commemoration. The second tier features special treats candy, sweet breads (pan de muertos), and mole. It often includes shot glasses of Mexican liquors such as mezcal or tequila. The top level of the ofrenda features photographs of the dead person along with photos of saints. The ofrenda will traditionally feature displays of marigolds, otherwise known as flor de muertos, or flower of the dead.

Ofrenda de los Muertos
Ofrenda de los Muertos

Sugar Skulls

Those who celebrate el Dia de los Muertos often make sugar skulls to honor the dead. Sugar skulls are elaborate skulls fashioned from sugar cane. They are typically flavorless but rich with color achieved by using vegetable dye. It is common to write the name of the departed on the center of the skull. Over the years, sugar skulls have become made of a variety of substances including chocolate, paper, or cardboard. Face painting in the tradition of sugar skulls has become a tradition in itself and can be very elaborate and breathtakingly beautiful.

Sugar Skulls
Sugar Skulls | Source

Other Traditions

The history of el Dia de los Muertos is rich with traditions from across the globe. In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls of the dead were regularly kept as symbols of death and eventual rebirth. The Aztecs worshipped a goddess known as Lady of the Dead and dedicated a month of celebration in her honor beginning each August. It is common for people to visit cemeteries and other resting places during Allhallowtide and to leave marigolds, other flowers, food and trinkets and to burn incense to honor the dead.

Flor de Muertos (marigolds)
Flor de Muertos (marigolds)

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