Día de Muertos

By Melinda Alvizo

Often incorrectly associated with Halloween because of its eerie moniker, Día Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is much more than a holiday. It is a special tradition celebrated across Mexico and in Mexican households across the globe. Following on the curtails of Indigenous People’s Day and with much of the same meaning, it is a day to celebrate and remember lifetimes that have passed on.

Miccailhuitl: A Celebration of Dia De Los Muertos.” via The Sundial


Originally an ancient pagan ceremony called Día de Muertos (Day of Dead); the ritual celebrated the goddess Mictēcacihuātl (pronounced Meek-tech-a-sea-wall), ruler of Mictlān (the Aztec underworld). The ritual was first celebrated by the indigenous Mēxihcah (pronounced Meh-chic-cah) of the Aztec empire (present-day Mexico city) during the summer, and the festivity involved honoring the dead by celebrating their transition into the afterlife with food, music and dance. The Mēxihcah believed that after death, souls departed on a multifarious journey that resulted in their eternal slumber in Mictlān, and once a year they returned to earth to visit their loved ones. For this reason, death is often viewed in a positive light in much of Mexican mythology and history.

Transition From Ritual to Tradition:

Although the ritual existed prior to Spanish contact, it became a widespread event and tradition due to their arrival. The Mēxihcah population was heavily decimated from exposure to contagious European diseases such as smallpox and influenza. As a result, they faced an unknown future. To combat this reality, they believed that honoring the dead through celebration was the surest way to guarantee a peaceful afterlife. Journals kept by Spanish friars in Hernán Cortés’s expedition revealed that they viewed the ritual as “sacrilegious” and used this as both a motive and justification for their forceful assimilation and Christianization of the Mēxihcah. This forced introduction of Catholicism into indigenous culture caused a new and syncretic religion to form. Thus, the tradition incorporates both pagan and Catholic features, such as calaveras (sugar skulls) and velas (religious candles). As centuries passed, the holiday was aligned with the Catholic observance of “Allhallowtide”, which is the combined events of All Saints’ Eve (October 31st), All Saints’ Day (November 1st), and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd).

Día De Los Muertos – Day of the Dead. via Port of Seattle

How Does the Holiday Work?

Taking place over two-days (usually November 1st and 2nd), Día de Los Muertos is a large communal gathering that involves several aspects. The first day, referred to as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) celebrates the lives of children who passed away (from natural or tragic causes). The second day, formally known as Día de Los Muertos or Día de Los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased) celebrates the lives of all who have passed on. Both days involve the following structures and objects:

Ofrendas (Altars): Perhaps the most important aspect of the tradition, intricate ofrendas are erected in private homes, in churches, at festivals and in communal gathering spaces. These altars are usually extremely colorful, containing handmade decorations and photographs of passed loved ones. They often resemble a two-step staircase with a small box stacked over a larger one. While the word ofrenda translates to “altar”, the word also symbolizes an offering to the deceased loved ones. Heritage Museum of Orange County has created its own altar to celebrate the holiday:

Velas (Candles): Candles that depict Catholic saints and are usually placed on top of the altar near the photographs of passed loved ones. Each saint symbolizes a different aspect of life, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who is considered the patron of animals and ecology. Velas are chosen based on their relevance to the individual who passed away.

Calaveras (Skulls): During the ancient ritual of Día de Los Muertos, the literal skull of the deceased individual would be placed on the ofrenda to symbolize their being. Today, photographs and sugar (candy) skulls are used in place of this. While skulls usually symbolize death, the Mēxihcah decorated the dead with flowers, jewels and hand-painted embellishments to celebrate and honor the individual.

Flores (Flowers): Assorted flores such as flores de caléndula (marigolds) are spread over the ofrenda and surrounding areas. Marigolds are symbolic of pain and grief and the Mēxihcah believed that while death was inevitably difficult, it is also beautiful.

Papel Picado (Paper Garland): Vibrant, perforated paper garlands are a staple of most Mexican festivities including Día de Los Muertos. These colorful papel picados are also symbolic of the beauty and vibrancy of Mexican culture. Most often papel picado is hung above the ofrenda and on the lowest table or stair of the altar.

La Calavera Catrina: The character La Calavera Catrina (A female skull cartoon) represents and symbolizes many things including the goddess Mictēcacihuātl and death itself. Although this idol was not part of the original ritual, it was adopted sometime in the 19th century during the Mexican revolution. Today, men, women and children dress and paint themselves as “skeleton people” to symbolize and commemorate their deceased family members.

Comida (Food): La comida favorita (favorite food) of the deceased individual is placed on the ofrenda near their photograph. In addition, other assorted Mexican pastries such as pan dulce (sweet bread), conchas, and other Mexican candies are placed around the altar. These items are symbolic offerings made to loved ones in honor of their memory and spirit.

Once all of these items are collected and displayed, people will gather around their pueblos, churches (to pray), and/or major streets to hold a communal ceremony that involves traditional Mexican music, dance and marching. Due to the pandemic, these types of gatherings are not permitted. Please see the section below for suggestions on how to safely celebrate the holiday and tradition.

Dia De Los Muertos. via National Geographic Society

Present Day:

Here in HMOC’s beautiful home of Santa Ana, over 78.2% of the city’s population identifies as Hispanic/Lantix with a majority of ethnically-Mexican background. Each year Santa Ana’s community-based organization El Centro del Cultural de Mexico puts together a festivity known as Noche de Altares (Night of the Altars) in which a massive ofrenda is put on display. Local members, families and visitors are welcomed to bring photos of passed loved ones. Mexican vendors and artists gather together to celebrate the day with traditional foods, dancing and art. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this year’s event has been postponed. However, here are some ways you can still celebrate the holiday from the safety of your home:

  1. Create your ofrenda at home with your family. For tips on how to create an ofrenda watch this video.
  2. Decorate calaveras with your kids (here is a free printable activity to complete at home) and place them on your altar.
  3. Listen to a Día de Los Muertos podcast such as this spotify playlist dedicated to the holiday.
  4. Read these interesting articles about the tradition.
  5. Watch this insightful BBC documentary on the holiday/tradition:

For more information on Día de Los Muertos visit these links:

  • To learn more about Mictēcacihuātl click here
  • To learn more about Día de Los Muertos click here and here
  • To learn more about Mexican culture and heritage in Orange County click here


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Fredrick J. “500 Years Later, The Spanish Conquest Of Mexico Is Still Being Debated” npr,





Allhallowtide” Naturally Simple Living,

Laskowski A. “The History of Halloween: CGS lecturer on vampires, zombies, things that go

bump in the night” BU Today,


All Saint’s Day” Catholic Online,

“All Soul’s Day” Catholic Online,

“Facts and Figures” The City of Santa Ana,


Vasquez L. and Salinas I. “Miccailhuitl: A Celebration of Dia De Los Muertos” Daily Sundial,


Swift, C. “Día De Los Muertos – Day of the Dead.” Port of Seattle,


Brimberg, S. “Dia De Los Muertos.” National Geographic Society,