Symbols of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)

The Day of the Dead is celebrated annually in Mexico on November 1st, coinciding with the Catholic observation of All Saint’s Day. The Day of the Dead is a uniquely Mexican

celebration, a cultural festival resembling Halloween in many ways, but with more cultuiral and spiritual meaning. The holiday combines elements of Catholicism with ancient Aztec symbolism, and honors the spirits of departed ancestors and loved ones who are believed to return to earth to join in the celebrations.

Outlined below are some of the more common emblems of this important cultural holiday:




Jose Posada / Public Domain


Calaveras- Mischievous Dead

Calaveras (skulls) are probably the most recognizable emblems of the Day of the Dead. Calaveras are whimsical caricatures-most commonly drawings- of skulls or skeletons. In most cases, calaveras are depicted in humorous settings, often in scenes depicting traditional activities. Common images include churches, weddings, musicians, dancers,politicians, policemen, and revolutionary soldiers. The Calaveras are often accompanied by mocking “epitaphs” of persons living and deceased, in the form of satirical poems.

The iconic image at left comes from artist José Guadalupe Posada, whose work has become an integral part of Day of the Dead celebrations, and who may have initiated the tradition in the nineteenth century. She is “Catrina,” a caricature of a wealthy woman of the nineteenth century, and she mocks anyone who takes materialistic pleasures too seriously.


Like Calaveras, Calacas are mischievous renditions of skeletal firgures. Calacas include paper mache skull masks and figurines of popular calaveras, such as Catrina. They are popular items for tourists to purchase as souvenirs. Calacas are sometimes adorned with the names of the deceased.

Sugar Skulls



Sugar Skulls

A common rendition of the Calaveras come in the form of sugar skulls, decorated confections of sugar and egg whites which are exchanged as gifts or incorporated into offrendas. You can find directions for creating sugar skulls here.



Perhaps the most serious emblem of the holiday is the Offrenda, an altar honoring the dead. Offrendas are most often created in honor of one’s ancestors or loved ones, and contain a number of traditional elements, many drawn from indigenous Mexican traditions:

  • Crosses and other religious emblems, including statuettes of saints
  • Water, sacred to indigenous pre-Columbian cultures, and a symbol of baptism and new life in the Catholic church.
  • Salt, a preservative and purifying agent
  • Copal, a native incense used by the Aztecs
  • Candles, whose light guides the dead
  • Flowers, particularly the Cempazúchitl, or flower of the dead- the marigold, sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead.
  • Offerings of toys and sweets for children, alcohol and cigarettes for adults. Common food offerings include fruits and pan de Muertos, a sweet egg bread shaped to resemble skulls and bones.

Papel Picado

Papel picado literally means “perforated paper,” and refers to the lacy, elaborate pierced tissue decorations popular during the holiday. Papel picado are created from layers of colorful tissue (or sometimes even plastic), and feature many of the same th3mes as other Day of the Dead decorations.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Dumoulin May 10, 2015 at 6:06 pm

Does anyone know what a line of sugar in front of my apartment door, with three evenly placed crosses etched in this line, means? The police went to the person i suspected, and when she opened her door, the two officers saw the same thing INSIDE her apartment. She had it in front of three of her doors. Please e-mail me any response. Thank you.


Jennifer May 31, 2015 at 1:34 am

My first thought is- that’s how you get ants! ;) Not entirely sure, but it sounds like something with a harmless apotropaic intent. (If you wake to find guinea peppers or suchlike, then you have a neighbor who dislikes you) I want to ask- are you sure it wasn’t salt?


Adrianne August 19, 2015 at 11:11 pm

I agree with Jennifer – see if it’s salt! If it is salt, it is likely an attempt to help prevent negative entities/energies from entering your apartment. I’d be flattered she took the time to care, lol!


prof. of languages September 20, 2014 at 3:44 pm

first of all, the day of the dead is full of happy celebrations of ones life. it is not sad at all. it is not like Halloween either. Halloween is a happy celebration of candy and scary things as such. it is all about having fun and playing games and celebrating ones childhood. day of the dead is festivities that are happy and fun but with a more serious is the one day a year one can visit their deceased loved ones.


Wilma S. December 10, 2013 at 3:05 pm

And it´s not like Halloween at all, no festivity, no music etc..
Only People – most of them – going to the cemetery to visit theirs dead relatives. Leaving there flowers etc. On the thumbs.


Wilma December 10, 2013 at 2:43 pm

In Brazil , the day of the Deads is a National and it´s on 2nd November, it´s a national Holiday.


Jennifer May 6, 2013 at 7:19 pm

I know it’s annoying, but it’s really the best search option we’ve been able to find.


GS test demo April 1, 2013 at 2:42 am

Symbols of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)


Blur May 17, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Could you add Marigold on there. they are the main flower used on Alters… just to let you know, and hi Macey, Jaz, and Shelia


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