Skip to main content

FAQs: Day of the Dead

illustration of sugar skills, masks, bones, and guitars

Spooky season is upon us, and while Halloween is top of mind for most, there’s another celebration not to be missed: the Day of the Dead. Depicted in the animated Disney film Coco and the James Bond flick Spectre, the Day of the Dead is a large event celebrated with painted faces, elaborate alters, and celebratory processions. If you’ve ever wondered what’s behind it all and the Day of the Dead traditions, you’re in luck. Read on to learn more about this festive occasion. 

1. What is the Day of the Dead?

The Day of the Dead, or Diá de Los Muertos in Spanish, is a holiday traditionally celebrated near Halloween. It’s generally associated with other observances, like All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, and involves family and friends gathering to remember and pay respects to friends and family members who have died. 

2. When is the Day of the Dead?

A multi-day event, Day of the Dead celebrations can begin as early as October 28 and end on November 6. However, most festivities happen on November 1 and 2. 

3. Is the Day of the Dead like Halloween? 

Current traditions for both have evolved from early indigenous and religious rituals. Some similarities in how people celebrate include getting dressed up in costume, wearing masks, and receiving treats. Some differences are more abstract, such as the offerings and symbolism, while others are more concrete, like holiday dates and food consumed. 

Pumpkins are a time-honored symbol of Halloween. Check out our top pumpkin carving tips

4. Where did the Day of the Dead originate? 

The Day of the Dead originated in what is now considered Central Mexico. 

5. How did the Day of the Dead originate?

Going back thousands of years, the event is said to be rooted in rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In Aztec culture, death was a phase in life in which the soul departs but returns when it’s invited back to the living world, sharing in the joy of being reunited with friends and family. 

6. Who celebrates the Day of the Dead? 

The Day of the Dead is primarily celebrated by Christians and Catholics in Mexico and Latin America. This is because the holiday is closely linked with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. 

7. Where is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

The Day of the Dead is largely celebrated in Mexico, but observances can also be found elsewhere, usually by people of Mexican heritage. In the U.S., states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California hold Day of the Dead events. You can also find parades and events marking the occasion in the Philippines and Europe.

people with face paint on day of the dead

8. How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

The event is celebrated differently across the world, but typical commemorations include decorating the gravesite of the deceased and creating an altar to the deceased person at one’s home. Offerings, called ofrendas, are left at these places to honor the dead and invite them back. You might see photos, candles, bread, salt, colorful marigolds, and the deceased person’s favorite foods, drinks, and other items. Additionally, some cities hold parades that start at a cemetery and end at a church, concluding with a festival honoring the dead. People may also don masks or face paint depicting a sugar skull, called a calavera, and dress up.  

The Day of the Dead is just one of the many holidays this season brings. Check out the "other" holidays of the holiday season

9. What are Day of the Dead foods?

Iconic and traditional Day of the Dead foods include:

  • Pan de muertos
  • Alegrías 
  • Mucbipollo 
  • Mexican hot chocolate 
  • Atole
  • Pozole
  • Mole
  • Café de olla 

10. What is Day of the Dead bread? 

Day of the Dead bread, also called pan de muertos in Spanish, is a Mexican sweet bread that's commonly associated with the holiday. Its round shape symbolizes the circle of life, and extra dough is placed on top in decoration to represent bones. Day of the Dead bread is also often flavored with anise and orange blossom. 

11. Is it a somber, spooky, or happy occasion?

A celebratory occasion, the Day of the Dead is meant to be happy and fun. It’s the day when the border between the spirit world and the real world disappears, and the dead are welcomed back to eat, drink, and be merry. 

12. What’s the meaning behind the Day of the Dead’s sugar skull?

One of the most recognized Day of the Dead traditions is the use of the skull—you’ll see skeletons, sugar skulls, skull masks, and much more. A dominant figure in Mesoamerican cultures, the skull symbolizes a rebirth into the next stage of life. Today, people use skulls, or calaveras, to commemorate the dead. These sugar skulls are decorated with colors, flowers, stripes, dots, and swirls to signify the reverence paid to the deceased person. 

Tips for Hosting Trick-or-Treaters

You can absolutely combine your Day of the Dead traditions and holiday celebrations in any way you want. In fact, if you’re hosting trick-or-treaters this year, follow these tips for handing out Halloween candy.