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How to Celebrate the Day of the Dead Holiday

Learn all about Dia de los Muertos celebrations including the history of the holiday, how to create an ofrenda to honor your loved ones, how to craft sugar skulls, bake pan de muerto bread and more.

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Photo: Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez

About Día de Muertos

Día de Muertos, (Día de los Muertos) or the Day of the Dead, is a rich tradition that's been a centerpiece of Mexican culture for more than 3,000 years. Ancient indigenous societies of the Aztecs, Toltec and Mayans viewed life as a dream, and in death — an awakening. To honor their ancestors, they held meaningful and symbolic ceremonies, which included creating ofrendas (altars) with elements of earth, fire, water and air. Initially, this took place during the summer months but, by the 16th century, the Spanish influence and Catholic missionaries shifted Día de Muertos to November 1-2 to align with All Souls Day and All Saints Day.

Today, the essence of Día de Muertos embodies the continuum of life. Instead of fearing death, it is recognized, appreciated and celebrated as a part of the cycle of life. Families craft intricate ofrendas, setting the stage for the spirits of their dearly departed to make a fleeting, yet meaningful, return. It honors the bonds we share with our loved ones.

Día de Muertos is not about us mourning our loved ones who passed but hosting and welcoming them back to their earthly home for a short period of time.

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How to Make an Ofrenda

The heart and soul of Día de Muertos is the ofrenda, a beautifully curated altar, adorned with memories and symbols dedicated to the dearly departed. They are created with the intention of entertaining and welcoming these spirits. Ofrendas can be assembled anywhere. Many people adorn gravesites, while others transform a sacred spot in their home. You can also connect with local establishments and partake in community ofrendas.

A traditional ofrenda has the four elements:

Earth is represented by crops — pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

Air is represented by the delicate tissue paper of papel picado banners.

A glass of water is left for the dead, because they will be thirsty after making the long journey home.

Fire is represented by lit candles and burning copal represent.

Other important features:

Three levels to represent the underworld (lower area), earth (base) and the spirit world (above).

Sugar skulls to represent the sweetness of life.

Fresh marigolds — the pungent scent will help guide the spirits home.

Make it personal. Place photos of your ancestors in a prominent place. Add a comforting cup of cafecito they loved, their favorite meal or trinkets echoing their hobbies. Place a handwritten letter or make a music playlist. The more it resonates with their essence, the more heartfelt it becomes.

Remember, through your ofrenda, you are inviting your deceased loved ones for a visit. Make the return joyful so that when they return to the spirit world, they will feel fulfilled and happy!

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Día de Muertos Timeline

These days, Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated in the latter half of October and early November. You’ll see sugar skulls, face painting, ofrendas, pan de muerto all season as decorations, artwork and retail merchandise. However, the specific dates Nov. 1-2. .

The preparation begins the evening of Oct. 31 (although Día de Muertos has nothing to do with Halloween!) leading into Nov. 1, which is Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). Think of this day as a heartwarming tribute to the youngest souls, the little angels. Ofrendas during this time often burst with color and are adorned with playful toys and sweet treats, along with the traditional elements. By noon the next day, these tender spirits embark on their return journey to the spirit world.

Nov. 2 honors the lives of adults who have passed.

While this is a broad sketch of the celebrations, remember that the beauty of Día de Muertos lies in its diversity — each region, community and family adds its own personal touch and flair, making each celebration beautifully unique.

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Photo: Manuel Vazquez Lopez

Sugar Skulls (las calaveras de azucar)

One of the most iconic symbols of Día de Muertos is the sugar skull. Also known as calaveras, they are a delightful and meaningful aspect of the tradition. Granulated sugar is mixed with water and meringue powder and pressed into skull-shaped molds. Once hardened, they are adorned with iced frosting, glitter, foil and gems. The sugar relays the sweetness of life, and these fancy calaveras are often trimmed in shiny sequins and glitter. Names of loved ones are written across the forehead and placed at the ofrenda as a way to bond the living with the dead. You’ll never see a scary calavera for Día de Muertos.

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