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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 cultural 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 themes as other Day of the Dead decorations.


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