El Día de los Muertos - The Day of the Dead

This semester, I'm taking Spanish 101. Last week, my professor (mi profesora) announced our class (nuestra clase) would have a Day of the Dead celebration to learn more about the holiday and the Mexican culture related to it. She planned to set up an altar for gifts and memorials, as is traditional. However, since most of the class seemed disinterested, she chose to stick with a normal average class period instead. She did tell me where to find more information on the holiday, however; I decided to construct an altar of my own. (There are other traditions/beliefs in this holiday, such as dressing up and the Lady Catrina. The end of this post has links to more information.)

El día de los muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday observed on November 1 and 2 - los 1 y 2 de noviembre. Families (las familias) clean and decorate their loved ones' graves, setting up candles, photos of their loved ones, flowers, tissue paper with designs, and food (la comida). This holiday involves lots and lots of food -- traditional dishes as well as the favorite meals of the deceased. People also buy decorated sugar skulls. Children's graves include toys.

The meaning of the holiday goes back to an ancient belief that the boundary between the material and spirit worlds is thinnest at a certain point in the year, allowing spirits to cross from the afterlife into our world for a short visit. When Spaniards colonized much of South America, Catholic missionaries attempted to Christianize the holiday by altering it to coincide with All Hallows' Day on November 1. (Halloween is an abbreviated word derived from All Hallows' Eve.)

November 1 is the day deceased "innocents," or infants and children, pass through the veil. November 2 is the day for adults. The holiday is just as much about laughing at and even celebrating death as it is about celebrating and remembering loved ones' lives. Many who celebrate Day of the Dead aren't just remembering those who died; they truly believe their deceased ones' spirits are returning for the day.

Traditionally, Day of the Dead celebrates the life of family members. However, some modern celebrations and my professor's recommendations for our (cancelled) event include pets (las mascotas). My sources said that celebration of pets should take place on the day of the innocents, so November 1. After finishing my research, I set up an altar for my cat Butterscotch, who died in 2013 after battling throat cancer.

Mi altar para mi gato (my altar for my cat)

I set up the altar in a cardboard box. This was partly so I could keep it contained and easily moved, but also symbolic. Butterscotch, like most cats, freaking loved boxes. Even his photo was taken in a box. The hand towel lining the box is the same material as many towels and blankets Butterscotch enjoyed chewing holes in.

Mis ofrendas (my offerings)

Traditional altars include the four elements, so I did as well. The blue bowl filled with water (el agua); a tealight candle for fire (el feugo); tissue paper designs to symbolize wind (el viento), since they flutter with the slightest breeze; and flowers and the white bowl of salt to symbolize earth (la tierra). The water doubles as a drink for the spirit, who will be thirsty after traveling across the border from the afterlife.

In the center of my altar is a photo (la fotografía) of Butterscotch sitting in a box of my books. Personal notes are encouraged; behind Butterscotch's photo is a printout of the poem I read when he was buried. Altars should include foods and other things the deceased enjoyed. I included a can of tuna, a beaded chain like the ones found on dog tags, and some yarn. Technically, food is supposed to be prepared for the spirit to eat after their long journey, but my room already has issues with fruit flies and I'm just not up to that challenge.

Depending on the area, graves are decorated and altars are set up the day before or the day of the spirits' return. The time of the spirits' return also varies from town to town. I think generally the time is midnight, although one documentary visited a town where church bells rang at 3:00 in the afternoon to announce the spirits' arrival. I set my altar up on Halloween, the day before el día de los muertos, so it would be ready by midnight when November 1 began.

For more information about the Day of the Dead - including las calavas, the Lady Catrina, altars, las ofrendas, and more - check out these links:

Day of the Dead and the Sugar Skull Tradition

Dia de los Muertos - National Geographic

BBC Feasts Series - Mexico - Dia de Los Muertos: Part 1 Part 2

Celebrate Day of the Dead Starting Halloween

How to Create a Day of the Dead Altar - A Good Goodbye Blog

How to Make a Dia de los Muertos Altar - The Mija Chronicles

La Catrina: Mexico's Grande Dame of Death

La Calavera de la Catrina - Annenburg Learner Art Through Time

La Calavera Catrina - Mexican Art Gallery


  1. Interesting & enlightening post. I have, of course, heard of The Day of the Dead, but never really thought about it or its meaning or what it entails. And now I do.

    Pedantry alert! I think you meant to say "most of the class seemed uninterested" and not "disinterested."

    Either way interesting post, and I think Butterscotch is a decent name for a cat.


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