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Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead

Updated on January 1, 2015

Calacas con el Corazón

Calacas con el Corazón
Calacas con el Corazón | Source

Celebrate the Day of the Dead

Although occurring around the same time of the year as Halloween, Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, is a very different holiday. Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in many Central and South American countries with a different focus.

This festival to celebrate the unity of life and death, is considered by many to be the most important holiday of the year in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Dia de los Muertos is the time once a year, when the spirits of loved ones who have died, return to earth to celebrate this holiday with friends and family.

Calacas and Calaveras (Skeletons and Skulls) are prominently featured in many of the Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead celebrations, not as objects of fear, but as ways of mocking death.

In addition to the Latin American countries, Dia de los Muertos is also celebrated in many regions in the United States, Brazil and the Philippines.

Even if not traditionally from your cultural background, Dia de los Muertos is a unique way of keeping the memories alive of those who have died.

Image of Calacas con el Corazón by Kirsti A. Dyer.

Death is Coming

Deth's Coming
Deth's Coming | Source

Day of the Dead

October 31 marks the beginning of the fiesta of what we refer to in the United States as the Day of the Dead - El dia de los Muertos.

Commonly referred to as the Day of the Dead, it is more accurate to say Los Dias de los Muertos (the Days of the Dead), since the fiesta is several days long, from October 31 - November 2.

The dates may coincide with Halloween, yet Day of the Dead is not related to the All Hallows' Eve celebrated in the States. The Day of the Dead is a day for people to celebrate the lives and the memories of those who have crossed the river separating life from death. It is a time when the departed souls are allowed to come back to the world for a visit.

Daily Activities

On October 31 (our Halloween) families begin preparing the food, decorations and the altar (ofrenda) that will be used during the festivities. November 1 (All Saints' Day*) is the day that the angelitos (spirits of the dead children) arrive. November 2 (All Souls' Day*) is the day for the spirits of the adults arrival.


* All Saints' Day is a feast celebrated in honor of all the saints, known and unknown. For the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints' Day honors those who have attained the beatific vision in heaven. It is celebrated on November 1.

* All Souls' Day is the day in Western Christianity, commemorating the faithful departed. This day is observed especially in the Roman Catholic Church but to some extent also among Protestants. It is celebrated on November 2.

Source: Wikipedia. Day of the Dead.

Image Source: Miguel Ugalde. Deth's Coming. Royalty Free Use.

A Different Cultural Perspective of Death Where Death is Familiar

Is Dia de los Muertos the same as Halloween?

Dia de los Muertos is often compared to Halloween in part because they both have skeletons and skulls as decorations. These two fall festival celebrations are very different, with very different origins.

Halloween is based on a European holiday, All Hallows Eve, the day before All Hallows Day or All Saints' Day (November 1). It was a day of religious festivities in various northern European Pagan traditions.

The skeletons and skulls in Halloween (along with the other monsters, demons, goblins and witches) are objects of fear.

Mark Lacy with Houston's Institute for Culture offers these insights into the Day of the Dead and Halloween:

  • Much like El Día de los Muertos, Halloween was developed by prehistoric cultures -- Druids, Romans, and Celtics -- to live harmoniously in the cycle of the seasons, the harvest, and most importantly, the continuous circle of life.
  • Mexicans understand El Dia de los Muertos in much the same light-hearted context that many Americans understand Halloween.
  • With the pervasiveness of American mass culture on the airwaves, the renewed pride in local culture is seen particularly in El Día de los Muertos, as altars are displayed in public places, civic buildings, libraries, and even in the heart of the beast -- McDonald's and Wal-mart.


Ladislao Loera. About Dia de los Muertos. Dia De Los Muertos | Day of the Dead Website.

Lacy M. 2004. Origina of el dia de los Muertos. The Prehispanic Festival of the Dead Defies Cultural Invasions of Mexico. Houston Institute for Culture.

Dia De Los Muertos / Day of the Dead

A beautiful video essay that helps to explain the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos.

Dia de los Muertos - Day of the Dead - Video

The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips.

The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.

— Octavio Paz. Nobel laureate

Day of the Dead Photographic Print

Corazon Del Pueblo Folk Art Store, Day of the Dead, Oaxaca, Mexico
Corazon Del Pueblo Folk Art Store, Day of the Dead, Oaxaca, Mexico | Source

Books about Day of the Dead

A collection of books for reading and learning more about the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos.

Resources for Teaching about Dia de los Muertos

Using Skulls and Skeletons to Teach Children About Dia de los Muertos

In Mexico, children are often given skeleton toys, as a representation of death, so their first encounter with death isn't a fearful one. Playing with the skeleton toys helps teach children that life is for the living, and is to be lived until the time we die.

Teaching children to be less fearful of skeletons as representations of death is something that I have been working on for a few years. I have developed special teaching sessions for both of my daughters' classes around our Halloween using skeleton puzzles as a way to desensitize them to skeletons.

These activities could be easily used or modified with the Day of the Dead and Dia de los Muertos.

There are several points when developing activities to help children be less fearful of skeletons:

  1. Develop other (more realistic) views of skulls and skeletons rather than just as an object of death
  2. Find ways of remembering and honoring loved ones.
  3. Desensitize the children to skeletons as objects to fear during the Day of the Dead.
  4. Use skulls and skeletons as a way of celebrating the life of a loved on who has died.
  5. Learn a bit about anatomy.

I've used several different puzzles and handouts as part of the Halloween Skeleton/Bone Anatomy Activity.

Day of the Dead Crafts Book

Day of the Dead Crafts: More than 24 Projects that Celebrate Dia de los Muertos
Day of the Dead Crafts: More than 24 Projects that Celebrate Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead Crafts is filled with many of terrific projects that allow people to creatively participate in the excitement of the holiday.

Projects include Calaveras, Masks and Skulls, Ofrendas, Necklaces, Bracelets and more.


Books for Children about Day of the Dead

A collection of books that are useful for teaching children about the Day of the Dead that the many traditions.

Mexico's Day of the Dead on YouTube

Carrie from the Travel Channel takes part in Mexico's "Day of the Dead" Festival.

Mexico's Day of the Dead - Video

A Family Celebration of Life and Death

The Day of the Dead is time of celebration, not one for mourning. It is a happy time when once a year the spirits of loved ones who have died, return to earth.

People prepare special meals and decorations, sit on the decorated graves, share stories and memories, sing songs, play music, spending the night with the spirits of their departed loved ones.

Many people not raised with the tradition of the Day of the Dead find solace in this lighter, cheerful, family-oriented approach to the subject of death. Dia de los Muertos is a unique way of keeping the memories alive of those who have died.

More Day of the Day Books for Children

More books that are useful for teaching children about the Day of the Dead that the many traditions.

Calacas and Calaveras

Skeletons and Skulls

Sugar Skulls

Sugar Skulls
Sugar Skulls | Source

Calacas and Calaveras - Skeletons & Skulls

As with Halloween, Calacas (Skeletons) and Calaveras (Skulls) are prominently featured in all of the celebrations and activities for the Day of the Dead.

People wear calacas (skull) masks and dance to remember their deceased relatives. Celebrants may joke and make fun of death, represented by the Calaveras, the skeletons.

Skulls in different forms are dedicated to the dead relatives and placed on altars. Sugar, chocolate and amaranth skulls are created with the name of the dead person on the skull's forhead and then given to each other, so they can eat their own death.

Image of Day of the Dead Candy from Jait.

A Cultural View of Death and Posada's Skeletons

In Mexican culture, death is often confronted with humorous sarcasm. Death is case as an equalizer that not even the wealthiest can escape. The emotional response to death is characterized by impatience, disdain or irony.

The popular engravings of Mexican artist Antonio Guadalupe Posada resemble the woodcuts of the medieval danse macabre, in which people from all walks of life danced fearfully with their own skeletons, although Posada's skeletons seem to have no anxious premonitions about death.

Source: DeSpelder LA. Strickland AL. 2005. The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying. 7th Edition. New York, N.Y.: McGraw Hill.

La Calavera de la Catrina

Calavera de la Catrina

Calavera de la Catrina
Calavera de la Catrina | Source

La Calavera de la Catrina

La Calavera de la Catrina is a 1913 zinc etching by the deceased printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada.

While not popular in its time, the image of La Catrina has since become a staple of Mexican imagery, and is often incorporated into artistic representations of the Day of the Dead such as altars (ofrendas) and calavera costumes.

It was part of his series of calaveras, which were humorous images of contemporary figures depicted as skeletons, often accompanied by a poem.

The Day of the Dead: A Pictorial Archive of Dia de Los Muertos

The Day of the Dead: A Pictorial Archive of Dia de Los Muertos (Dover Pictorial Archive)
The Day of the Dead: A Pictorial Archive of Dia de Los Muertos (Dover Pictorial Archive)

Author Jean Moss takes a pictorial look at Dia de Los Muertos including many of the works by José Guadalupe Posada, Mexico's most illustrious graphic artist.

As a bonus the images are included with a CD-ROM that comes with the book. Images are in JPEG and TIFF formats.



Catrina Sculpture
Catrina Sculpture | Source

More Images of La Catrina

La Catrina is a figure commonly found in Mexico and featured during the celebration of the Day of the Dead.

La Catrina is a figure created by the Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posadas in the early 1900s.

The word catrin or catrina means well dressed or dressed very elegant.

Posadas, satirize the mexican women of high society by representing them as skulls and skeletons.

These were the ladies who enjoyed walking in the parks of Mexico City, with their beautiful hats and elegant dresses.

Today's La Catrina has become a classic representation of the Death in Mexico, with her big hat and elegant presence.

La Catrina has become an icon of the Day of the death.

Image of Catrina Sculpture from Wikipedia, Wikimedia by Dominik.

Calaveras de Azucar

Sugar Skulls

Sugar Skulls

Sugar Candy Skulls
Sugar Candy Skulls | Source

Calaveras de azucar (Sugar Skulls)

Calavaras de azucar (sugar skulls) are sweet way of combining elements of life and death:

Death - in the skull design
Life - in the sweetness of the sugar.

The skulls are created first using special molds and a sugar paste.

Once the skull has dried and been removed from the mold it is decorated with icing, glitter and pieces of cut foil.

The Calavaras are often placed on the altar or ofrenda as a way of honoring those who have died. Eating the sugar skulls also part of the a way of mocking death.

Photo Source:

Stu Spivack. Candy Skull. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons.

Sugar Skulls - Calaveras de azucar

Calaveras de Azucar (Sugar Skull) Molds on eBay

Make your own Calaveras de Azucar as a fun activity with your children.

Calaveres de dulces

Calaveres de dulces
Calaveres de dulces | Source

More on Making Sugar Skulls

Calavaras de Azucar or Calaveres de dulces is another traditional folk art form from Southern Mexico passed down.

Colorful Sugar skulls are created to use in celebrating and decorating for the Day of the Dead.

Making and decorating Sugar skulls is also a fun activity that can be done with children as a way of introducing the to another culture and the Day of the Dead traditions. Once made Calavaras de Azucar are used to decorate ofrendas (altars) and taken to the cemetery to decorate the tombs.

Image of Calaveres de dulces by Stu Spivack.

Calaveras de Azucar - Edible or Merely Decorative

There appears to be some differences in opinions as to the edibility of the decorative sugar skulls.

While there is nothing in the ingredients that will make you sick in Sugar Skulls except for the tin foil and other decorations, after all the handling that is done to create them, they may not be very clean. So according to one artisan, sugar skull should be used for decorative purposes only.

If you are looking for an edible skull artisans recommend making them in white or dark chocolate and just using icing to decorate them.

Beautifully Decorated Altar

Beautifully decorated altar (ofrenda)
Beautifully decorated altar (ofrenda) | Source

Pan de Muertos

Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muertos - Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muertos is a sweet egg bread made in various shapes. This Bread of the Dead is often formed in the shape of a skull, or a round loaf with strips of dough attached to resemble bones.

The bread is sometimes decorated white frosting to look like twisted bones.

Each village has its own unique style of Pan de Muertos that is prepared and placed on the altars (Ofrendas) for the deceased.

Pan de Muertos is prepared for Dia de los Muertos and then shared with family members. The bread is usually eaten as they all tell stories and reminisce about loved ones who have died.

Pan de Muerto

Pan de Muerto
Pan de Muerto | Source

Pan de Muertos Recipe


1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup water

5 to 5-1/2 cups flour

2 packages dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon whole anise seed

1/2 cup sugar

4 eggs


In a saucepan over medium flame, heat the butter, milk and water until very warm but not boiling.

Meanwhile, measure out 1-1/2 cups flour and set the rest aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the 1-1/2 cups flour, yeast, salt, anise seed and sugar.

Beat in the warm liquid until well combined. Add the eggs and beat in another 1 cup of flour.

Continue adding more flour until dough is soft but not sticky.

Knead on lightly floured board for ten minutes until smooth and elastic.

Lightly grease a bowl and place dough in it, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1-1/2 hours.

Punch the dough down and shape into loaves resembling skulls, skeletons or round loaves with "bones" placed ornamentally around the top.

Let these loaves rise for 1 hour.

Bake in a preheated 350 F degree oven for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and paint on glaze (recipe below).


1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

Bring to a boil for 2 minutes, then apply to bread with a pastry brush. If desired, sprinkle on colored sugar while glaze is still damp.


Source: Day of the Dead. Tohono Chul Park Activity Brochure.

Pan de Muerto Recipe

A collection of additional recipes for Pan de Muerto, Bread of the Dead for Dia de los Muertos.

La Ofrenda

The Offerings or the Altar


Ofrenda | Source

La Ofrenda - The Offerings

La ofrenda is Spanish for "offering." It is an altar, often created in the home, decorated for the Day of the Dead celebration.

The altar is a place to honor, please and some believe help light the pathway for the souls returning to spend this time once a year with family.

In creating the altar, family members honor their deceased with ofrendas or offerings which include items that the deceased enjoyed in life.

Photographs, bread, other foods, flowers, toys and other symbolic offerings, drinks (alcoholic and not), cigarrettes, mexican dishes (mole, rice, tamales, ect.), candy and other significant items can be found on the Ofrenda.

Image of Ofrenda by Libertinus.

Keeping a Vigil for Dia de Los Muertos Print

Mexicans Celebrating el Dia de Los Muertos Keep Vigil in Cemeteries, Mexico
Mexicans Celebrating el Dia de Los Muertos Keep Vigil in Cemeteries, Mexico | Source

Day of the Dead Video on YouTube

During Day of the Dead, people come to Casa Ramirez in the Heights to build altars and celebrate the lives of their loved ones a video story from the Houston Chronicle.

Day of the Dead - Video

Papel Picados

Punched Paper

Papel Picados - Punched Paper

Papel picado
Papel picado | Source

Papel picado - Punched or Perforated Paper

Papel picado means punched or perforated paper. It is a traditional folk art in Mexico and other Latin American countries of cutting decorative banners.

Punched Paper is a 200-year-old tradition in Mexico.

Papel picado banners and decorations are especially prominent during the Day of the Dead activities when the paper design features with images of skulls and skeletons. Once created the Papel picado are used to decorate altars, tables, graves, businesses, markets and plazas during festivals.

Papel picado artists use a hammer and sharp fierritos (small chisels) to punch designs in stacks of forty to fifty layers of colored tissue at one time. The intricate lace-like designs include images of flowers, letters, animal and human figures.

The tradition of crafting creating papel picados is passed down from one generation to the next. Papel picado folk artists are well known for their paper cutting skills within the community.

More recently this popular decorative art is now produced in plastic, a more practical and durable for hanging above outdoor markets.


Papel Picado: The Art of Mexican Cut Paper. NTIEVA (North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts). Fall 1996 Vol. 7, No. 3.

Books on Making Papel Picados on Amazon

Books to help you in making your own Papel Picados and Mexican Art. Some of these are only available from third parties.

Create Your Own Papel Picados

A collection of websites with information, patterns and resources for making your own Papel Picados.

What do you think about Dia de los Muertos?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

© 2007 Kirsti A. Dyer

Comments on Calacas and Calaveras

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      nice I appericiate you

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I appreciate you

    • HealthfulMD profile imageAUTHOR

      Kirsti A. Dyer 

      7 years ago from Northern California

      @anonymous: What a beautiful tradition and how lovely that the Vicar would email you about including your Dad in the prayers. I think Day of the Dead is a wonderful healing holiday, a day that we get to honor and remember those family and friends who have died.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I had heard of the Day of the Dead and although it is not celebrated here in the UK, a few weeks back I was very touched to receive an email from the Vicar of my family church. He let me know that on 4th November they would be having an All Soul's Service to remember those who had passed away during the past year.

      Not only would they be saying prayers for the departed (which include my much loved and hugely missed Dad) but he also asked me if I wanted anyone else included in the prayers. The gathering was also an opportunity to provide comfort and offer support to the bereaved.

      Sadly we were unable to attend but I was very touched by this.

      It seems to me that having a festival to commemorate the dead is a wonderful way to break down the taboos associated with death and dying.

    • magictricksdotcom profile image


      7 years ago

      Another interesting lens. You certainly have the gift- you are a very entertaining writer.

    • Pip Gerard profile image

      Pip Gerard 

      8 years ago

      brilliant page!! Love it.

    • pepys profile image


      8 years ago

      I lived inMexico for a time (way back) but I do remember the importance of the Dia de Muertos for just about everybody. The markets, the bazaars and just about everywhere you see loads of artifacts and items relating to death. By the way the sugar skulls were delicious. If my memory serves me right, it is a celebration by the living for those who have passed on. It amazed, but I also found it profound, that families would take a picnic to the cemetary to share with their ancestors.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      8 years ago from UK

      This Day of the Dead page is very interesting and packed with information! I find that punched paper enchanting, hadn't seen it before. Thanks so much for stopping by my own Day of the Dead themed page.

    • charder profile image


      9 years ago

      Awesome lens!

    • imaginemdd lm profile image

      imaginemdd lm 

      9 years ago

      Thank you for this great page about The Day of the Dead. It's fascinating and informative. The figures have always interested me as we celebrate each year. I've added a link on my doll & puppet directory lens.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Its an awesome lens. Nice information i got from your lens. Good sharing and my 5***** for you.

    • Alex-and-Ra profile image


      11 years ago

      awesome! i've been looking for some good information on this holiday so 5* thanks! this lens would be a perfect addition to Mexico Travel - The Best of the Best ( ) feel free to join!

    • Mortira profile image


      11 years ago

      Fantastic lens! What a wealth of info. Thanks for sharing and comparing this great holiday! 5 stars and a 'roll!

    • kerbev profile image

      Kerri Bee 

      11 years ago from Upstate, NY

      I would love to be in Mexico for this special day. It's on my Bucket List.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 

      12 years ago from USA

      This is a fantastic source of information and a fun read. Thank you for adding it to the Gothic Temptations Group!

    • KimGiancaterino profile image


      12 years ago

      Dia de los Muertos is a big deal in our community, but I wasn't fully aware of the history behind it. I always learn so much from your lenses. Lovely artwork and presentation too!

    • Karicor profile image


      12 years ago

      Incredible amount of information, awesome lens! I learned a lot - 5 Stars! Welcome to the Festivals Of The World Group!

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      Nice lens!! Voting for your lens on


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