Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday honoring deceased friends and family members. It’s about so much more than sugar skulls, though those certainly do figure into the celebrations. And while it’s not a coincidence that Día de los Muertos takes place every fall right around Halloween, they are most assuredly not the same thing.
The line between the two holidays gets blurrier all the time as Day of the Dead symbology is more and more frequently co-opted for All Hallow’s Eve decor and costumes. They do share some similar elements at their roots, and they occupy the same space on the calendar for a common reason, but their origins are worlds apart.
Día de los Muertos can be traced back to a month-long, end-of-summer Aztec harvest festival honoring Mictecacihuatl (or the “Lady of the Dead”), while Halloween has roots in an ancient Celtic holiday called Samhain, when the boundary between the living and the spirit world was thought to be at its thinnest. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, older pagan traditions like this were supplanted and synthesized; Samhain, celebrated on October 31, became entangled with the November 1 Catholic holiday All Saints Day, which was also called All-hallows (making Samhain All-hallow’s Eve, which is how we arrived at Halloween). Similarly, although about 520 years later, when Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they brought Christian traditions with them, and Día de los Muertos eventually became tied to All Saints Day too.
Whereas Halloween has been removed from its religious roots long enough that it’s now a totally secular celebration, Day of the Dead still hews more closely to its spiritual origins. And while we mainly use Halloween as a great excuse to dress up, eat candy, act spooky, and scare ourselves (and others) senseless, Day of the Dead is a joyful occasion for paying tribute to family members and friends who have died, and celebrating the lives they lived. Their souls are warmly welcomed back, with no fear, ghastliness, or ghoulishness involved. Instead of the doom and gloom of Halloween (which, even when enjoyable, is still often intentionally macabre), Día de los Muertos is marked by happy music, bright colors, conviviality, and prayer.
Despite its singular name, Day of the Dead actually spans the first two days of November. Traditionally, November 1 is dedicated to honoring departed children, while adults are remembered on November 2. On October 31, it’s customary to set up altars to your departed loved ones, either at home or in the cemetery. These are covered with candles, flowers (marigolds in particular), bright decorations (often in the shapes of skulls and skeletons), mementos of the dead (such as their clothing and other belongings, photographs, trinkets, and toys), and their favorite food and drink. Collectively, these are called ofrendas, or offerings. But food is a vital part of the festivities for the living too. After all, it’s standard practice in nearly every culture to feast on celebration days. Here are some iconic dishes you’re likely to encounter on Día de los Muertos.
Although they’re not necessarily eaten so much as used for decoration, these elaborate candy skulls are, along with La Calavera Catrina, the most iconic symbol of Day of the Dead. They show up now in completely unrelated contexts, not just as Halloween costumes but in coloring books, everyday accessories, and home decor, but they originated as a way to represent the departed, and were wrought in sugar because that’s a resource in which Mexico was rich. Many celebrants of Día de los Muertos also paint their faces in the manner of a sugar skull (or La Catrina), but this is part of the tradition of honoring the dead, and a symbolic recognition and acceptance of death itself; as undeniably striking as the look is, especially if you are not Latinx, you might want to think twice about painting your face like this for Halloween. Many people find it disrespectful and appropriative. At the very least, you should know the history of the motif. If you’re truly dedicated, you can try your hand at making your own sugar skulls. (Or at least buy a DIY decorating kit.)
Handmade Sugar Skulls ($5)
If you don't trust your decorating skills, buy ready-made symbolic sweets.
This is a sweet, rich, eggy yeast bread flavored with anise, often baked into a round loaf with bone-shaped decorations on top, though styles vary. Some pan de muertos may be coated in sesame seeds, some in sugar, some even iced. (While Día de los Muertos is primarily a Mexican holiday, All Saints Day is celebrated in semi-similar fashion in Spain, where they have their own sweet treat, huesos de santo, or saint’s bones.) Pan de muertos is often eaten—and offered to the spirits—accompanied by warm cups of atole, a thick cornmeal-based drink fragrant with cinnamon. Get our Pan de Muertos recipe.
Atole and Champurrado
Atole, as mentioned above, is a thick, rich drink of hot water or milk whisked with masa harina, the corn flour used to make tortillas. Sweetened with piloncillo, it often contains spices like cinnamon and vanilla as well (you can even find seasonally appropriate pumpkin versions). Champurrado is essentially the same drink with chocolate added, and makes an equally good partner to pan de muertos, or churros. Get the recipe.
Since Día de los Muertos is a special occasion, more labor-intensive dishes like tamales and mole are commonly made, both as offerings for the altars and for sustaining the living in their celebrations. While tamales are most often encountered in savory incarnations (like pork mole tamales, or bean and cheese), they do come in sweet versions too, like these featuring golden raisins, pine nuts, anise, and brown sugar. Sweet or savory, tamales are definitely a labor of love, so get a group together if you can; many hands make the work more manageable, and it’s a fun way to bond to boot. Get our Mexican Sweet Tamales recipe.
Mole is another delicious dish that involves a considerable amount of time (and ingredients) and so is perfect for special celebrations. The complex, long-simmered sauce usually includes chocolate, several types of dried chiles, nuts and/or pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds, plus plenty of other spices and seasonings. It’s typically served with turkey, chicken, or other meat. Although the method is totally unorthodox, our Slow Cooker Chicken Mole recipe makes a feast doable even on an ordinary weeknight, but if you want the authentic experience, you’ll need to set aside at least a few hours. And feel free to tinker, since there are not only regional variations on mole sauce, but every cook has their own particular version too. Get the recipe.
Candied pumpkin (or butternut squash) regularly turns up on Día de los Muertos altars, and is generally eaten by the living as a dessert or snack. A cinnamon and piloncillo sugar syrup adds sweet warmth to the tender pumpkin chunks. Orange peel is often added as an additional flavoring. Along with calabaza en tacha, you’ll frequently see candied pumpkin seeds on Day of the Dead altars and tables too. Get the recipe.
Other comestibles you’re likely to find as part of ofrendas include fresh fruit, bottles of soda, beer, and even mezcal. Whatever the departed liked to eat and drink is what’s offered to them, in hopes that when they return to the other side, they’ll have full stomachs and happy hearts. And may the living have the same.
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