The Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is celebrated throughout Mexico and beyond largely on November 1st (Día de Todos los Santos) and November 2nd (Día de los Muertos).
This annual celebration honoring loved ones who have passed is deeply rooted in traditions that go back generations, to Mesoamerican times.
Over time, the Aztec beliefs became intertwined with Catholic traditions, giving rise to the Día de los Muertos traditions we know today. And although these traditions can vary greatly, even differing from town to town, there are some common practices.
Here are four ways you can honor and celebrate your ancestors on Día de los Muertos.
One of the most common Día de los Muertos traditions is to build an altar to honor your ancestors, whose souls return to celebrate with the living.
It’s known in Spanish as an ofrenda.
When building their ofrendas, people place pictures of their loved ones, along with decorations, and often food and drink offerings. Like many Día de los Muertos traditions, customs related to ofrendas can vary. But here are a few common elements you can use in your ofrenda:
Candles: Lighting candles can help guide your ancestors to their ofrenda. Often they are placed in the form of a cross.
Incense: Burning incense as part of an ofrenda is very common. Traditionally the incense is made of tree resin, in particular the aromatic resin from the copal tree. The scent of the incense is said to draw in the souls of the departed.
Marigolds (Cempasuchitl): Marigolds, or as the Aztecs called them cempasuchitl, are known as “flor de muerto,” or “flowers of the dead.” They are a key part of ofrendas, and their scent is believed to beckon souls to the altar. These flowers are often scattered around the ofrenda or even arranged into a cross.
Salt: Salt is an element that is common in Día de los Muertos ofrendas. It is often set out in the pattern of a cross. It’s thought by some to quench the thirst of souls, by others to help purify them.
Sugar skulls (Calaveras de azucar): Brightly decorated sugar skulls, or calaveras de azucar, are one of the most iconic symbols of Día de los Muertos. The skulls represent those who have passed. And the sugar can be considered symbolic of life’s sweetness. These skulls are part of ofrendas but can also be given as gifts to the living, with the recipient’s name inscribed on the forehead.
Tissue paper (Papel picado): Colorful tissue paper with intricate cut-outs, papel picado, is commonly used in decorations for Día de los Muertos. As with so many elements of this celebration, papel picado is immersed in symbolism. The paper can represent the fragile nature of life, the cut-outs a way for the souls to travel through and visit the living. The color of the paper can also be symbolic. For instance, purple can symbolize mourning or grief and pink can represent celebration.
Water: Water is always placed on the ofrenda to symbolize life, and to quench souls’ thirst after the long journey.
Food and drinks play an important role in Dia de los Muertos festivities. Often people enjoy a celebratory meal, in honor of the dead, featuring the favorite foods and drinks of their departed loved ones.
But the food prepared is not only for the living. It is also included as part of the ofrenda, as a way to welcome the spirits of departed loved ones back to Earth.
While your deceased relatives may not literally consume the food, it’s often thought that they are able to enjoy the essence of the meal.
One common treat is pan de muerto, which means “bread of the dead.” If you don’t already have a family recipe, you might find some recipes on Ancestry®, such as this newspaper record featuring a pan de muerto recipe.
When setting up your ofrenda, don’t forget to include photographs of your loved ones. They are believed to draw the souls of your departed relatives to the altar, signalling to them you are honoring and celebrating their lives.
If you don’t have a photograph of some of your ancestors, there are a couple of ways Ancestry could come in handy.
You could find old family photos that other Ancestry members who are your distant relatives have uploaded to their family trees, like Amanda. Who knows, a cousin in Texas could have a beautiful photo of your grandmother that you never realized existed.
Or if there’s a family member you heard stories about—maybe even found an inspiring historical record about them—you might have luck finding their photo by looking through Ancestry’s extensive picture record collection.
The Day of the Dead is a time to reflect on those who've come before you. It's a great time to talk with your family about your ancestors and other deceased loved ones, to learn more about their stories.
One tool that could help you uncover details about your family’s past and enrich your celebration of your family stories is records found on Ancestry.
You could for instance, find your grandmother’s marriage license that would tell you not only what year she married but how old she was, where she got married, and even details like her parents’ names.
This information could help you jump start a conversation to learn so much more.
Celebrate Your Loved Ones
Día de los Muertos is a time to remember your loved ones, to pass on their stories and keep their memories alive.
If you feel inspired to explore your connections with your ancestors, Ancestry has billions of records, including a Latin America records collection.
Discover more about your ancestor’s lives with Ancestry today.