Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day of the Dead - The Symbols and Traditional Elements

An Altar with Many of the Typical Elements
The Day of the Dead is a rich Mexican tradition which takes place during the first two days of November, and focuses on the memory of family and friends who have passed away.  This is my third post about my limited experience with this very special holiday, and the information I give here about the symbols and traditional elements is far from complete, and comes mostly from my wife  (if it's inaccurate, I'll take the credit for poor translation!). For anyone new to the holiday, however, it will give you an idea of what you'll see if you ever have the opportunity to experience the Day of the Dead.  If you know more about it, feel free to share info in the "comments" section below.

The items I list here are usually found on the altars, set up in homes for deceased family members, and seem to have a special association with the Day of the Dead and the emotional, spiritual and community significance of the holiday.


This is the name from Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) for the Mexican Marigold (meaning "twenty-flower," I guess because of the many petals), which has various spellings, and is also called the "Flower of the Dead" in Mexico, because of its strong association with the holiday and other related traditions; I've read that in Honduras, they wash corpses with water that has been boiled with the petals.

The flower is placed on the altars, and in the cemetery.

A path Leading from the Door to the Altar

This could be a line of the marigolds, or of ashes, again with the purpose of guiding the souls to their altar.


Candles are lit on the altars and in the cemetery when family members visit.  The idea is that the candles will help to light the way for the souls of the deceased when they come to visit the altars their family has built for them.


This is a plain cross, without Christ on it, and is placed on a central point of the altar.


Often, pictures of the person or people for whom the altar was built are placed on the altar, at the base of the cross.


Copal Resin ready to be burnt as incense
This is a special resin called copal (which is also a word from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, still spoken in isolated villages) which "cleanses and purifies a place and the people in the place" when burnt as an incense.

Sugar Skulls

Little skulls made out of sugar or chocolate and brightly decorated are placed on the altar, sometimes with the names of the deceased. (I assume one for each person.)  See my last post for a picture (there's a link at the bottom.)

Catrina, the Skeleton Lady

Catrina Figure in Playa del Carmen
This is an image of a skeleton dressed as an elegant, upper-class lady from about 150 years ago, and is closely associated with many images related to the Day of the Dead. The image was originally created by a Mexican cartoonist (Jose Guadalupe Posada) who used images of skeletons to make fun of the Mexican elite upper class (hence the clothing of "Catrina.") Later on, the images became associated with the Day

In some places I have seen elaborate scenes of skeletons, like an entire band of little skeletons, or a woman skeleton sewing; this depends on the career or hobby of the person in question, or it could be a skeleton couple, for example, if the couple has passed away.  Sometimes they are a part of the altar, sometimes as separate Day of the Dead decorations.


As with the next few items, glaseswater is placed on the altar for the convenience of the the souls who visit. Many people authentically believe that the souls of their family and friends come and drink the water.

Pan de Muerto

This is a round, semi-sweet bread, coated in sugar on top, and sometimes has a mild orange flavour.  There is also the form of several "bones" shaped with the same bread crossed on the top of the bread.  Besides being placed on the altar, it is sold in very large amounts during October and November, and eaten as a special seasonal treat.  Personally, I love it. Some people find it too dry, but this depends entirely on which bakery you buy it at.


Mole is a rich, dark, thick sauce, made out of chocolate, ground chilis, sugar, peanuts and many other ingredients.  A small bowl of this sauce is placed on the altar, as a part of the meal for the deceased.  Other food items can also be included, usually the favourite food of the person who has passed away.  Even non-food items can be included such as beer, wine, cigarettes, etc.

While mole is served plain here, it is also a very common food in Mexico, normally eaten with chicken and tortillas.  Someday I'll do another post about mole, one of my favourite foods.

Dry, Sugar-Coated Squash

This also for the souls of the dead, in case they are hungry.  This is a candy-like treat that is very traditional in Mexico but I actually don't too many Mexicans who like it.  I tried it once and I think it was OK, but I like just about everything.

There are many other symbols and elements which are often included in various parts of the country.  Thanks to my wife who helped me put this much together about the tradition she is most familiar with!

To read my first post, which is a brief introduction about my experience with the Day of Dead in Cuernavaca, click here.
To read my second post, which was a brief overview of a few different areas where there are interesting traditions, click here.

Tomorrow I will write about the altar we are putting up this year.