The Grateful Dead: Dia de la Muertos



Around Halloween, it’s quite the norm to see skulls and fall-colored flowers as home décor. But when you see these decorations after All Hallows’ Eve, especially on November first and second, they just might signify Dia de La Muertos, The Day of the Dead.



Well, there’s nothing “wo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o” about this holiday. A time when families celebrate the lives of deceased relatives, it’s a popular tradition in Mexico, many Latin American countries, and the American southwest. Families often build an ofrenda, or altar, to honor the deceased loved one. Here in Ventura County, California, the kids at the Boys and Girls Club built altars honoring extinct and endangered animals! And an Irish family built an altar for the late grandmother, both to honor her memory and to teach their kids about another culture.




An ofrenda is a bright, colorful memorial display designed for joy, not mourning or sadness. It is often a simple stack of boxes arranged in tiers, with the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages set out, as well as much-loved knick-knacks, photos, and candles. You might even see small soaps and grooming aids in case his/her spirit comes home and wants to gussy up for the trip back. Marigolds are the main Dia De La Muertos flower, and most altars include profusions of the golden blooms in vases or on overhead arches.


And we can’t forget the candy sugar skulls!


They are called calaveras de azucar, and are inscribed with the name of the dead loved ones and eaten in their honor.




More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in the area of today’s Mexico, they encountered native peoples practicing a ritual dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl that seemed to mock death by celebrating the dead. Skulls were a powerful symbol.


The indigenous people had practiced this ritual for at least 3,000 years, during the entire ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, which is approximately today’s August. Although the Spaniards considered the ritual pagan and sacrilegious, the old Aztec rite refused to die.




In the Spaniards’ attempts to convert the Aztecs to Catholicism, the Days of the Dead were moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1 and 2), when Christians honor those who have passed on before. These dates remain today.


Nothing about Dia de la Muertos reflects the fright and horror of All Hallows’ Eve. In fact, skeletal figurines, the calacas and catrinas, are usually depicted laughing and cavorting and wearing bright clothes. skeletons1


On the Day of the Dead, the favorite foods of the departed person are prepared as well as bread, salt and water to help the spirit on its journey back. Candied pumpkin is a delicious treat, and special bread, called pan de muerto, is made from egg-rich dough flavored with anise and orange. The shapes vary regionally, but often reflect the shape of skull bones, although some bakers shape humans and animals.




The souls of children, or los angelitos are said to return on the first day of celebration. They are honored with miniature pan de muerto. The adult spirits, who return a day later, receive only the finest foods, dishes that require many ingredients and complex preparation. Specialties include mole, turkey or chicken in a chocolate chili sauce, and tamales, corn dumplings filled with meat and chili steamed in corn husks. Supposedly spirits take in the aromas of these foods since they cannot eat; therefore the more pungent and spicy, the better The foods are often displayed on the ofrenda, later eaten by the family or given away. Edible marigolds are included in many recipes.




Like the Aztecs, today’s central symbol in Day of the Dead festivities is the skull. Celebrants make and wear masks and dance to honor their loved ones. Masks range from expensive, cutting-edge pieces of fine art to simple children’s crafts, such as cutting eye holes from paper plates.




The whole idea of this festival is embracing life and an afterlife full of joy. Sometimes a gravesite itself becomes an ofrenda full of flowers and favorite foods, and the family picnics nearby.


Have you ever built an ofrenda or seen one? A sugar skull? What traditions are special to your family, neighborhood, or culture? Please share some of them with us today!


And don’t forget to enter our “Cowboy Under the Christmas Tree” contest while you’re here! 



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27 thoughts on “The Grateful Dead: Dia de la Muertos”

  1. This is a very interesting post Tanya! I have never seen a sugar skull before or heard of one. We don’t really have any traditions for Halloween other then giving out lot of treat to the neighborhood kids, which I had lots this year. I really enjoy doing this though.

  2. Hi Tanya, What a perfect post-Halloween post! (Yikes, that’s repetitive, but oh well!) I’m not familiar with the ofrenda tradition, but we’re rather partial to “peeps” when it comes to Halloween. Remembering lost loved ones is a wonderful thing to do. I like the idea of celebrating a loved one’s life with food and friends and good memories.

  3. Good morning, Quilt Lady, thanks so much for posting. I just couldn’t resist sharing some info on Day of the Dead as it’s so close to Halloween. We had a neighborhood block party (great fun) and had tons of trick-or-treatrs. Also great fun. We also took the grandbaby to a pumpkin patch farm in the country. Also tons of sunflowers growing there!

  4. Hi Vicki, I too like the idea of the memorial display and remembering a loved one with food and laughter rather than mourning. Thanks for posting today, my filly friend! oxoxoxox

  5. Hi Tanya — I don’t think I could eat a candy sugar skull, though the history behind this tradition is very interesting. I’d never heard of some of them. Yet, the idea of embracing the life, after a person has passed on is a good one. Although I still think skeletons and skulls are spooky and especially if they are smiling. 🙂 Too much Halloween in me, I think!

  6. Hi Charlene, I totally agree about NOT eating skulls, although the remembrance sentiments are lovely. I am very much a Halloween girl myself. Thanks for stopping by. oxoxoxoxox

  7. I’m good with the candy sugar skulls. I mean c’mon people, you eat gummy worms, right?


    To me SUGAR overrides the whole skull hangup. But then I didn’t get into the shape I’m in by being too picky.

    • HI Mary, as always I’m laughing out loud. I will have to try finding some sugar skulls next year and send you some. As for gummiworms, I never had a taste for them. I remember making some kind of icky desert for the kids with a pudding-cakey mixture in a flower pot with gummiworms in it, then crushed up Oreos on top for “dirt” and some kind of candy flower. oxox

    • Too funny, Cher. No it’s pronounced mo-LAY and it’s a chocolate chili sauce in which chicken or turkey is cooked. I have tried it and me no likee. It’s not chocolate like the kind I am addicted to LOL.

  8. Tanya, interesting post! I’d heard of this celebration but wasn’t that knowledgable about it. We all do special things I think to honor and remember our loved ones who’ve passed. Some people light candles so why not eat candy skulls? Like Mary, I’m not too picky when it comes to sweets. LOL Just asky my dentist!

    • Hi Linda, I too have a giant sweet tooth. Make that 32 of them or so LOL. I too didn’t know a lot about this celebration, just bits and pieces here and there, until I started seeing a few events around town publized in the last few weeks. So I looked some stuff up and thought it might make an intersesting posto-Halloween blog. oxoxoxo

  9. I’m Hispanic but to my recollection my family
    didn’t observe this occasion. In fact, my paternal
    grandfather was not taken with my mother’s “modern” ways of rearing us! Mother was all English as our primary language, raising us as American citizens, PTA, and volunteerism. We have followed in her footsteps with our own families. In fact, my adult oldest son was the first to ask questions about this “celebration.” I researched into “El Dia” for him and then eventually wrote an article for an author friend’s blog last year.

    Pat Castillo Cochran

    • HI Pat, my dad was the one who did not want us to celebrate the “old country” ways or learn the language (In this case, Russian.) I think the ease with which we can obtain information today is a good thing so we can learn about our pasts.

      Thanks for stopping by today and adding your interesting comment.

  10. Very informative! It’s nice to see traditions are still being passed on… many holidays are so commercialized these days that we tend to lose the true meaning of the celebration.

    My family honors the deceased with a celebration on the anniversary date of their loved ones.

  11. Hi Tanya,

    Great post. I love learning traditions of other cultures.

    My family always honors the deceased on the anniversary of their death and really eveyday should be honored for them

    Thanks Tanya,

    PS Once you sign up for the contest do you have to do it everyday or what

  12. Hi Melinda, it’s always great to see you here at Wildflower junction. You are so right. We should honor and think of our loved ones every day. My dear dad passed away on November 8 long ago, but I seem to remember him better on his birth date than that one.

  13. Hi Tanya!!! 😉

    This is a very interesting blog! I know nothing of this tradition really-but find it intriguing (sp?)

    I think it’s wonderful how they devote such time and effort to honor the memories of loved ones that have passed away!

    Thank you for sharing all of this with us Tanya!

  14. Hi Melissa, you area very welcome. And thanks for stopping by the Junction today. It’s always so good to see you here. I thought this all was very interesting myself so…figured it would make a good blog.

  15. Hi Melissa, you area very welcome. And thanks for stopping by the Junction today. It’s always so good to see you here. I thought this all was very interesting myself so…figured it would make a good blog.

  16. Hi Mary, I agree with your comment about candy LOL. I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I think I would actually rather eat the sugar skull than a gummiworm. Something about the texture. Thanks for stopping by today.

  17. Have not participated in any Dia de la Muertos in the Americas, but the spanish influence has spread to other parts of the world. In the Philippines, they also celebrate,but not in as showy a manner. It has been a while since I was there, but I do remember it was a time when families went to the cemetery and spent the day cleaning and painting the tombs. That night they come back, light candles and torches, set up decorations and food on the graves and celebrate. It is something rather foreign to the english based culture of most of the US. As you said, it is a celebration of the lives of our loved ones. Irish wakes are kind of the same thing: a party to celebrate the life of the dead.

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