What Is Day of the Dead? Here's What to Know About the Holiday

Learn about the history of Día de los Muertos, which is celebrated in early November.

You may have heard of Day of the Dead before, but how much do you know about the holiday? Traditionally known as Día de los Muertos, the holiday has its origins in ancient Aztec times and ties in with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

"It's a time for remembering loved ones and welcoming back their spirits," says Pati Jinich, cookbook author and host of the PBS television series Pati's Mexican Table.

The holiday began in Mexico but is now celebrated all over the world by people with ties to Mexican culture. The premise of the holiday is simple: to pray for and remember friends and family members who have passed away. Learn all about Day of the Dead, the traditions, how its observed, and how to decorate for Day of the Dead.

When Is Day of the Dead?

sugar skull pumpkin stencil design painted on a faux orange pumpkin decorated with faux marigold flowers
Matt Clark

Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1 and 2 every year. Traditionally, November 1 (Día de los Inocentes) is reserved for children and babies who have died, while November 2 (Día de los Muertos) is for adults who have passed away.

Because Day of the Dead falls on the day after Halloween, the two holidays are often intertwined (which may be why Día de los Muertos pumpkins are popular), but there's no official connection between the two celebrations.

How to Celebrate Day of the Dead

There are plenty of ways to celebrate the holiday, and there's no wrong way as long as celebrations are respectful of the culture. Here are four Día de los Muertos traditions to learn more about this year.

Make an Altar

Families create altars in their homes and decorate them with photographs, Papel Picado banners, flowers, candles, and the deceased's favorite indulgences, like cigars, candies or wine. Families remember their loved ones and share favorite memories of time with them.

Decorate for Day of the Dead

You'll probably recognize the Day of the Dead's iconic sugar skull design, even if you aren't sure what it means. Sugar skulls date back to the beginnings of the holiday: Sugar was a widely available resource in Mexico, so locals used it to create skull shapes for their loved ones. Traditionally the skulls are decorated with the loved one's name and can be decorated with ribbons, frosting, and other bright decorations. "Sugar skulls defy death. They take sadness and make it sweet," Jinich says.

Use Marigolds

Marigolds are used in Día de los Muertos celebrations and are a pretty way to decorate for the holiday. Also known as cempasúchil, these vivid flowers represent the fragility of life. Their bright petals and pungent aroma are meant to guide the souls of the dead back home.

Visit a Gravesite

Much like the All Saints Day tradition, families celebrate Day of the Dead by visiting cemeteries to clean the gravesites and decorate them with marigolds, candles and other accessories. To pay respects to a loved one, plan a visit to the gravesite, and take flowers and items the person enjoyed in life.

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