Dia de los Muertos: A Guide to the Colorful Traditions Behind the Day of the Dead

Now that the coffee shops are full of pumpkin-spiced treats and stores are stuffed with racks of Halloween costumes, you may notice more skeletons and skulls than usual.

That’s because San Antonio not only celebrates Halloween but also pulls out all of the stops for Día de los Muertos.

You may have seen the brightly decorated Day of the Dead skulls called calaveras, or catrinas, finely dressed skeleton women, featured on everything from handbags to kitchen wares in places like H-E-B or Target. Maybe you saw the 2017 smash Disney children’s film Coco, in which a young boy, Miguel, finds himself in the colorful land of the dead where he learns about his family heritage as his town prepares to celebrate the holiday.

But what is Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos? And why is it celebrated in the U.S.?

A large calavera ready to delight during Day of the Dead San Antonio.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is NOT an extension of Halloween. The traditions come from Mexico, where families gather to pay tribute to their deceased loved ones. Festivities stretch over two days, November 1 and 2, with the former set aside as Day of the Innocents or Day of the Little Angels, a day to honor children who have passed, followed by Day of the Dead, which honors departed adults.

The tradition can be traced to the rituals of the Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua peoples and was later combined with Catholicism brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors. Sadness or mourning of the dead at that time was considered disrespectful. Instead, the holiday becomes a time of love when families remember, reflect on, and celebrate those who have died.

Día de Los Muertos is a festive holiday celebrated across Latin America including the Caribbean. It has a growing presence in the United States and is observed more in California, Arizona, and Texas—all states with larger Latino populations.

A catrina on display. Credit: Iris Gonzalez

And we are lucky to live in San Antonio, home to one of the largest observances in the U.S. The holiday comes alive with parades and parties where people dress up as skeletons in brightly colored, fancy clothes and hats. People also paint elaborate designs on their faces similar to what you see on sugar skulls.

What’s wonderful about celebrating Day of the Dead is that it’s a time to share your memories of someone you’ve lost. It’s a time to highlight what the person loved to do, their favorite foods, what made that person unique. It brings families together and replaces mourning and sadness with love and joy over a life well-lived. You can teach your children about their grandparents or great-grandparents as well as others on your family tree.

How can you observe this beautiful holiday?

Try building an altar at home with your family to honor a deceased loved one.

Image courtesy of Day of the Dead San Antonio.

Building an altar is easy and can be as simple as a table set up with photos of your loved ones and an offering of the foods and drinks they once enjoyed. Involve your children in building the altar—it’s a good time to talk with them about beloved family members, and they can help gather items for the altar.

Traditional altars, or ofrendas, are often set up in three tiers representing the land of the dead, the land of the living, and the land of saints, or heaven. They also usually include items that represent the four elements of life: air, earth, fire, and water. You can add candles to represent each loved one; water to quench their thirst after the long journey; pan de muerto, known as the bread of the dead, to feed them; orange or yellow marigold flowers to help them find their way back to the living; and papel picado, which symbolizes the wind.

You can also join in our city’s celebrations. There are many family-friendly events, activities, and classes designed to teach about this rich and lively cultural tradition. Sign up to learn how to build an altar, make sugar cookies, or make and decorate sugar skulls.

Image courtesy of Iris Gonzalez.

A new series of Day of the Dead events is coming to the Alamo City this year. Day of the Dead San Antonio is offering Catrinas on the River, a new river parade scheduled for the night of November 1. The Arneson River Theatre will host kick-off festivities with dozens of dance performances including Dance of the Mojigangas, the larger-than-life puppets from Mexico.

You can also run in the Celebrating Life 5k Walk-Run race through Mission Park Funeral Chapel and Cemeteries South with the entire family or attend the free Noche de Coco, an outdoor screening of the Disney movie at the Tobin Center. Come dressed for the occasion in colorful Mexican dresses and guayaberas, flower crowns, and sugar skull face paint.

Día de Los Muertos is not a somber occasion; it’s a time to celebrate, remember, and of course, have fun!

Selena Catrina, an homage to celebrate and remember Selena, featuring more than two million hand-placed beads, will be on display during Day of the Dead San Antonio 2019. Photo credit Iris Gonzalez.