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Keeping Day of the Dead Traditions Alive Through Family and Food

The annual Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos celebrates our late loved ones through beautiful and very personal altars. Learn how to set up your own meaningful display and prepare a delicious feast to welcome back the dead.

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is rooted in Mesoamerican culture and was likely first observed by the Aztecs in festivals that celebrated the ruler of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. Nowadays on November 1st and 2nd the living honor the dead by visiting gravesites, building altars, and preparing their favorite foods in order to encourage a visit to the terrestrial world.

Over ten years ago, while living in San Diego, I created my first home altar to honor my father. Inspired by the lively celebrations in Old Town, I built my Día de los Muertos altar and invited friends and family to join in on the festivities. They were tasked with bringing photos and mementos of their loved ones while I prepared some of my favorite family recipes. Since then, it has become one of my very favorite holidays and traditions — one that my children and I look forward to each year. While the idea of celebrating death might strike a morbid chord for some people in the United States, for us it's a way to celebrate the lives of our deceased loved ones and honor their memories through food, music, photos, and brightly colored altars.


The author (far right) with her niece and son; Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

Jump ahead to:

Day of the Dead altar items and their significance >>

Ofrendas: Food and drinks and their significance on altars >>

What food is eaten on Día de los Muertos? >>

Sweets, treats, and desserts for Day of the Dead >>

Traditional hot Mexican drinks and cocktails for Day of the Dead >>

Main dishes and sides for Day of the Dead >>


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Day of the Dead altar items and their significance

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

Traditional Day of the Dead altars can be simple or elaborate. Three basic elements of an ofrenda (altar) include a photo of the person you’d like to honor, flowers, and a candle. If you’d like to create a more elaborate altar, I’ve included a list of items you can add to your ofrenda as it will surely continue to grow through the years. What’s important is that each element you choose to include means something to you.  


Arch

Above the altar is usually an arch made of flowers or other offerings, which represents the entry into the world of the dead.


Candles

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

Candles represent fire and serve as a light guiding the spirits back to visit the land of the living.


Cempazuchitl (Marigold flowers)

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

Marigolds are known as the flor de muerto (flower of the dead), as they help guide our loved ones’ souls back to the world of the living with their bright orange color and fragrance. The Aztecs believed that the smell of the marigolds could wake the souls of the dead to bring them back for the festival that celebrated the goddess of the dead and death, Mictecacihuatl. 


Dogs

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

Small figurines of dogs are often included on altars because they are believed to guide the ancestral spirits to their final resting place in the afterlife. 


Incense

Copal or incense is sometimes included on an altar to ward off bad spirits and purify the soul of our dearly departed. It also symbolizes the element of air.


Monarch butterflies

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

These butterflies, which migrate to Mexico each fall, are believed to be the spirits of the dead returning to visit. 


Papel picado (Perforated paper)

Colorful papel picado represents the union between life and death. This delicate tissue paper also signifies the fragility of life and the element of wind.


Personal objects and mementos

Personal items serve as a reminder of the person being honored. They can include a favorite toy, tool or kitchen utensil, clothing item, snack, or drink — anything, really!



Ofrendas: Food and drinks and their significance on altars

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

There are also various food and drink-related offerings that are commonly associated with Day of the Dead. Below are a few items you might find on altars meant to welcome back loved ones who have passed.   


Pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread)

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

This semi-sweet bread is baked to look like a skull and crossbones and is left as a gift for the spirits to absorb its essence. It is a welcoming item that represents the host’s generosity and also symbolizes the element of soil.


Calaveras de azúcar (Sugar skulls)

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

These decorated skulls and their friendly faces symbolize the spirits being honored and their individual personalities. They can be made out of sugar, chocolate, paper mâché, wood, or any other material. In pre-Columbian times, Aztecs used amaranth seeds instead of sugar to make the skulls. Edible skulls are often consumed by kids after the celebration and are an example of a Mexican’s ability to celebrate, mock, and play with death.


Salt

Salt represents purification of the soul.


Candy

Altars built for deceased children include a candy offering.


Water

Water is left out to quench the spirits’ thirst after a long journey. It also represents the element of water.


Alcohol

Any alcoholic beverage favored by the dead is used to toast the arrival of their spirit.



What food is eaten on Día de los Muertos?

Photograph by Lola Wiarco Dweck

In areas of Mexico where this holiday is celebrated, traditional Day of the Dead recipes such as rice, mole, chocolate, fruits, pumpkin desserts, and pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) are also displayed on altars and enjoyed throughout Día de los Muertos celebrations. Festive plates are left out and are meant to satisfy a spirit’s hunger after a long journey to the living world.

If you’re in need of inspiration, I’ve compiled a list of delicious recipes, from sweets and treats, to drinks and entrees, that will surely satisfy the palates of both the living and the dead.



Sweets, treats, and desserts for Day of the Dead

Various versions of pumpkin desserts, pan de muerto, sugar skulls, and other sweets are prepared leading up to Día de los Muertos and meant to entice both young and old souls back for a visit.


Calabaza en Tacha (Candied Pumpkin)

This pre-hispanic dessert is traditionally made and placed as an offering on altars on November 1st, Día de los Angelitos, and November 2nd, Día de Muertos


Calaveras de Azúcar (Sugar Skulls)

This DIY sugar skull and icing recipe allows you to personalize each calaverita on your ofrenda.


Vegan Chocolate and Amaranth Skulls

Unlike the sugar skulls, which are used mostly for decorations, these are meant to be eaten.


Día de los Muertos Caramel Almond Rice Krispie Treat

Caramel, almonds, cereal, and marshmallows all come together for an adorable and tasty treat that’s skull-shaped and perfect for Day of the Dead celebrations.   


Camotes Enmielados (Mexican Candied Sweet Potato)

Similar to calabazas en tacha, candied sweet potatoes will always remind me of the Mexican street vendor with a small cart who lets out a loud whistle to alert people of his arrival.


Calavera Buñuelo Ornaments

Transform flour tortillas into calaveras with this easy buñuelo recipe — they double as ornaments if you’ll be creating a tree of life for Day of the Dead, too!


Marigold and Orange Blossom Sugar Cookies

This sugar cookie recipe includes flavors you’d find in pan de muerto — orange zest and orange blossom — to create an edible treat that can be prepared in advance and baked when you’re ready to gift or enjoy.


Mexican Chocolate Pan de Muerto (Mexican Chocolate-flavored Bread of the Dead)

The perfect pan to pair with sweet frothy Mexican chocolate or cafe de olla.


Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)

A must on any altar, this recipe incorporates orange zest for a hint of citrus flavor. 


Pan de Muerto (Vegan Bread of the Dead)

For a vegan spin on traditional pan de muerto, this one sounds equally delicious. 


Pumpkin Empanadas

Perfect to welcome fall, this sweet pastry is made with an easy pumpkin filling.  



Traditional hot Mexican drinks and cocktails for Day of the Dead

There are a number of traditional drinks that are consumed in the Mexico around the holiday season, especially for Day of the Dead. This list also includes new spins on the classics as well as some fun cocktails inspired by the holiday. Marigold-infused recipes have also become fun additions to drinks, sides, and entrees.


Atole de Vainilla (Vanilla Atole)

Mexican vanilla beans give this atole its extra special touch and flavor.


Blood Orange Marigold Margarita

Spiked with marigold-infused tequila, this blood orange margarita is sure to welcome guests on Day of the Dead and any other celebration!


Café de Olla (Traditional Mexican Coffee)

Sweetened with piloncillo and infused with other warming spices, this is among the most traditional of hot drinks to sip on in Mexico around the holidays.


Champurrado

Similar to Mexican hot chocolate, the main difference is the addition of corn flour, or masa, to give this drink an additional layer of texture and flavor. 


Marigold-Infused Tequila

Say ¡Salud! with a golden tequila infused with flor de muerto.


Marigold Martini

Infused with marigold vodka, this martini also includes elderflower liqueur, sweet vermouth, bitters, and dry ice for an extra dramatic effect. 


Mexican Hot Chocolate, Oaxaca Style

Mexican hot chocolate is unique in that the tablets used to make this frothy drink combine pure roasted cocoa, granulated sugar, cinnamon sticks, and sometimes almonds.


Orange Blossom Mezcal Sour Cocktail

By combining various elements and flavors from this special holiday, we are left with a cocktail that is sure to please the palates of those who are still with us and will hopefully lure back our deceased loved ones on Día de los Muertos.


Pumpkin Champurrado

This fun fusion combines elements of champurrado — a hot drink thickened with corn flour and sweetened with Mexican chocolate — with fall flavors such as pumpkin. 


Strawberry Atole

A classic pairing for tamales around the holidays, this recipe calls for pureed strawberries and offers a fresh spin on classic atole



Main dishes and sides for Day of the Dead

Moles and tamales are staples on ofrendas throughout Mexico and nowadays, both can be transformed to satisfy just about any palate. And what better to serve them with than marigold-infused rice and tortillas?


Creamy Marigold Baked Rice

Creamy baked rice infused with marigolds is a tasty way to showcase marigolds and honor our departed loved ones for Día de los Muertos.


Enmoladas de Pollo (Chicken Mole Enchiladas)

A favorite among Mexican food enthusiasts, enmoladas offer the perfect way to use leftover chicken and mole. 


Enmoladas de Papa (Mole Enchiladas with Potato)

Swap out chicken for potatoes and you have a vegetarian spin on classic chicken enmoladas.


Green Chicken Tamales 

Tamales are one of the most traditional foods prepared for Day of the Dead throughout Mexico. Make and freeze these chicken tamales in advance and steam them up for friends and family members upon their arrival.


Jalapeño and Cactus Tamales

Keep it simple with vegetarian tamales that incorporate a few of our favorite green Mexican ingredients.


Marigold Tortillas

There’s nothing better to scoop up mole and other Día de los Muertos foods than a homemade tortilla, and these are infused with marigold petals, making them perfect for the occasion.


Mole Negro, Oaxaca Style (Oaxacan Black Mole)

This recipe includes a list of over 25 ingredients and is a true labor of love, taking more than a day to prepare. For this reason, mole negro is reserved for special days of reverence including Day of the Dead and wedding celebrations.   


Pipián Verde (Green Mole)

Pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, chiles, and fresh greens give this mole its lovely green hue. 


Tamales Huastecos in Banana Leaves

Tamales are a staple for most Mexican holidays, and Day of the Dead is no exception.



Dying for more Day of the Dead ideas? 

While there are many ways to celebrate Day of the Dead, some of my favorite activities include building a home altar, decorating sugar skulls, sharing stories about our deceased loved ones, and listening to their favorite music as we prepare recipes that remind us of them. It is through sharing these traditions that we keep our deceased loved ones alive in our homes, hearts, and memories. As the dicho goes, “La muerte no existe, la gente sólo muere cuando la olvidan.” 

Find more Day of the Dead activities and inspiration below:



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