October 11
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Because of the overlapping dates, “The Day of the Dead” decorations have become very popular recently for use while decorating for Halloween, without the people using the boldly colorful skeletons and skulls being aware of the true meaning of the holiday.

“The Day of the Dead” originated in Mexico 2000-3000 years ago. It was originally a month long celebration around August by the Aztec Indians, and is currently also celebrated in other parts of Latin America and the United States but is not part of any Halloween tradition. Instead it is a fusion of Spanish Catholic and Mexican traditions and beliefs, to honor ancestors, family, friends and sometimes even pets, who have died.


Mexican traditions hold that each individual dies three times. Once when their bodies quit functioning. Once when their bodies are put into the ground or cremated. And once when they are forgotten.

Unlike it’s spooky cousin Halloween, The Day of the Dead is a joyous holiday celebrating the ancestors, family and friends who have passed on to their next lives.

People from Mexico believe souls have the ability to travel back and forth between this world and the next and during the Day of the Dead celebration their souls come back and visit. So there must be preparations and accommodations made for the returning spirits.

The Day of the Dead is Celebrated on October 31st, November 1 and November 2.

On October 31st the food is cooked, the home alters are constructed (see below), the cemeteries cleaned and the graves decorated with Ofrendas, or offerings. These decorations include wreaths of marigolds, which are thought to attract the souls of the dead toward the offerings, and toys brought for dead children (los angelitos, or little angels) and bottles of tequila, mezcal, etc. for adults.. After cleaning all day, they party all night long at the cemeteries where stories of the deceased are told and excess of food and the alcohol consumed. On November 1st while the Roman Catholics celebrate All Saints Day, the Mexicans celebrate “Dia de los Santos” to honor the children which is called “Dia de los Inocentes” or “Day of Little Angels”. November 2nd “All Souls Day”, “Dia de los Fielles Difuntos” is celebrated by the Roman Catholics and in Mexico they celebrate “Dia de los Muertos” or “Day of the Dead”

As a part of the Day of the Dead celebration, families build altars in their homes for loved ones who have died.

“Day of the Dead” altars have many traditional elements representing the elements of nature. Water, Wind, Fire (candies) and Earth (food and marigold flowers which are yellow or gold like the sun, representing life and hope.) are represented, photos, candy and chocolate or sugar skulls, skeletons of all kinds, mementos and cut paper decorations called papel picado.

Photo of Ofrenda

At only 5.5″ x 8″ this little Ofrenda packs quite the punch of Day of the Dead Symbolism.

 Sugar Skull

  • Calaveras: Brightly decorated skulls, made of sugar, paper machie or ceramic and can represent specific ancestors, family or departed friends, inscribed with the names of the deceased on the forehead. They can be used alone or with other traditional decorations to embellish Day of the Dead altars.
Photos of Sugar Skull Cookies

Sugar Skull Cookies

  • Food: particular favorites of the ancestors, including tamales, empanyadas, candies,  pumpkin seeds and amaranth seeds which were used by the Aztecs to make the skulls instead of sugar.

  • Monarch Butterflies: Monarch Butterflies migrate to Mexico in the fall and are believed to be the spirits coming to visit.
  • Candles: Representing fire, candles are burnt on the family alter to guide the spirits back from the afterlife.
  • Alcoholic beverages: Used to toast the departed. The Aztecs had a beverage called pulque made from the sap of agave that they served for special spiritual ceremonies.
  • Papel Picados: Hand cut tissue paper represents the wind and how fragile life is.
  • Dogs: Believed to guide the ancestors spirits to the afterlife.
  • Milagros:  The flaming heart, is a popular symbol for expressing love and passion on the home altar. Milagros translates to “little miracles”.

Photo of ofredas

This simple 10″ tall ofredas was simple to make using a “Shuttered Picture Frame”.

For complete instructions/inspiration

Click Here

You can take these traditions one step further by incorporating entire pedigrees of your ancestors into traditional Day of the Dead art projects.

Photo of the Color it yourself, Day of the Dead Pedigree Chart

Day of the Dead 4 Generation Pedigree Chart

Help support the blog by downloading a copy of the 4 generation Adult Coloring Page


Here is a short video of my Alter Display at the Anchorage Dia De Los Muertos Event.

UNESCO has declared the indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead as an intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (Unesco.org).

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