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How to Celebrate Dia de Los Muertos at Home
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How to Celebrate Dia de Los Muertos at Home

Wondering how to celebrate Day of the Dead at home? We've got you covered with Dia de los Muertos recipes, DIY decorations, and more.

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7 min read

October 22, 2020

Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, often conjures images of bright marigolds, sugary candy skulls, colorful Mexican garb, festive music, and faces painted like skeletons. But this spirited holiday offers more than meets the eye—the revelry represents time-honored traditions that are deeply rooted in Mexican culture.

Día de los Muertos festivities originated in pre-Hispanic times to honor the lives of friends and family members who have passed away; far from somber, the holiday is about celebrating the gift of life and connecting with loved ones. If you want to embrace the event as a way to pay tribute to your dearly departed, here’s what you need to know to celebrate Day of the Dead at home.  

Dia de Los Muertos Traditions

The most sacred Day of the Dead tradition is constructing an altar to honor the life of deceased loved ones.

Contrary to its modern name, Day of the Dead spans three days, taking place from October 31 to November 2. It is believed that during this time, the barrier between the physical world and the spirit realm dissolves, allowing the souls of deceased loved ones to return for a brief reunion.

Families entice the departed to awaken from their eternal slumber by decorating their graves with flowers, creating altars with offerings, singing and dancing, holding parades and candlelight vigils, and making traditional foods. Here are some of the Día de los Muertos traditions you should know about as you prepare to celebrate the holiday at home.

1. Altars: Building altars is the most sacred Day of the Dead tradition. Families create altars dedicated to their loved ones, displaying photos of the dearly departed, placing candles and flowers, and leaving offerings (or ofrendas) such as items with personal significance and favorite foods that the deceased might enjoy in the afterlife.

2. Marigolds: The traditional flowers used to decorate the altars are marigolds. Believed to attract the souls of the dead due to their eye-catching color, marigold petals are scattered on the ground to form a path to guide the deceased back to their loved ones. 

3. Papel picado: Also known as colorful perforated paper, papel picado is a quintessential Día de los Muertos decoration placed around homes to represent the fragility of life. 

Colorful candy skulls, vivid marigolds, and candles are among the traditional items placed atop Day of the Dead altars.

4. Calavera: The calavera, or skull, is an iconic Día de los Muertos symbol. Sugar skulls are ubiquitous during the holiday, representing the sweetness of life. They’re typically made from granulated white sugar and painted in vibrant colors before being placed atop altars. It’s also common to see ceramic skulls embellished with flowers.

5. La Catrina: The most emblematic figure of the holiday is La Catrina. Created by José Guadalupe Posada to bring elegance and a sense of aristocracy to Día de los Muertos, the classily dressed female skeleton serves as a reminder that no matter where we come from, we all end up as skeletons. 

6. Alebrijes: These Oaxacan folk-art characters are whimsical figures portraying animals, people, objects, and imaginary creatures painted in vivid hues. Alebrijes are thought to be creatures of our dreams and the other side.

How to Dress for Dia de Los Muertos

In Mexico, Day of the Dead revelers often dress up in long, flowy dresses and paint their faces to mimic La Catrina.

When thinking about how to celebrate Día de los Muertos at home, costumes are one of the first things that come to mind. But when dressing up for the festivities, it’s important to keep in mind that Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Although celebrated around the same time, spooky Halloween costumes can’t be doubled for Día de los Muertos attire

During the Mexican holiday, people of all generations gather to paint their faces like La Catrina and don fancy, Victorian-style dresses, often decorating them to represent a deceased loved one or an expression of themselves. Yellow and orange are the main colors people wear; representing sun, light, and life, the two colors are primarily found in the marigolds used to decorate Day of the Dead altars. Pink is a sign of happiness and celebration, whereas purple represents pain and grief. 

Dia de Los Muertos DIY Decorations

When celebrating Day of the Dead at home, make your own decorations to create a festive, authentic ambience.

A proper Day of the Dead celebration requires fitting decorations. Día de los Muertos crafts are the best way to decorate your home and get all the family members in on the action. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Papel Picado Banners


What you need

5–10 sheets of crepe paper in different colors
Scissors
Thread or twine
Scotch tape

Directions

Cut the crepe paper into squares. Grab a piece of paper and fold it in half twice. Pick a design, and cut out a pattern of your choice on the bottom half. Open it and fold it down, and then once more diagonally. Cut out shapes from the remaining squares, place the twine along the top border, and fold down the top and secure it with the tape.

2. Calavera Balloons


What you need

White balloons
Black sharpie

Directions

For this easy DIY Día de los Muertos decoration, all you have to do is blow up the balloons and draw intricate skull designs using the black sharpie. 

3. Glow-In-The-Dark Day of the Dead Lanterns


What you need
 
Glass mason jars
Black sharpie
Paint brush
Glow-in-the-dark sticks

Directions

Use the black sharpie to draw calavera designs on each glass mason jar. Paint the inside of the jar with glow-in-the-dark paint using the brush, and let it dry before placing the sticks inside and closing it.

4. Calavera Mask


What you need
 
Printed calavera cut-out
Colorful markers
Scissors
Glue
Hole punch
Rubber band

Directions
Paint your calavera with your colorful markers (look at pictures online for inspiration), and cut out the eyes when you’re done. Then, cut a strip of paper and fold it over a few times until it’s about one-inch long. Glue the layers together and attach the edges to the sides of the mask. Punch a hole at each end, and tie the rubber band to the holes. 

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Dia de Los Muertos Recipes

Another way to celebrate Día de los Muertos at home? With food, of course! Although the dishes prepared during the holiday vary in cities across Mexico, here are a few Día de los Muertos recipes you just have to try. 

Celebrate the holiday with pan de muerto, a sweet yeast bread featuring a skull-and-crossbones design on top.

1. Potato Pan de Muerto 


Ingredients

1 pack active yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
1 cup mashed potatoes 
½ cup softened butter 
2 eggs, beaten
3 cups bread flour
Olive oil
Egg wash (1 egg and 1 tablespoon water whisked together)

Directions

  1. Pour yeast and water to a mixer, let it activate for 10 minutes, then add salt and sugar and mix well.
  2. Add in mashed potatoes, butter, and eggs. 
  3. Pour the flour into the mixture one cup at a time, and mix for 5 minutes (or until the dough no longer sticks to the mixer). 
  4. Start kneading the dough until smooth.
  5. Use the olive oil to grease a bowl and the dough. Place the dough in the bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise for 2 hours. 
  6. Once the time is up, remove the towel and punch down the dough.
  7. Knead the dough once more until smooth.
  8. Grease two cake pans, divide the dough into three parts and put two of them in the pans (leave the third part for decoration).
  9. Let the dough sit for another hour before decorating.
  10. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  11. Roll out the reserved dough to create designs for the loaf and cover with egg wash.
  12. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes (or until the load turns golden brown). 
Warm up with a mug of vanilla-infused atole, a sweet corn-based beverage often enjoyed during DIa de los Muertos.

2. Atole de Vainilla


Ingredients

3–4 ounces piloncillo
¼ cup water
3 cups 2-percent milk
½ cup Maseca
1 Mexican vanilla bean, cut in half and then split lengthwise
1 Mexican cinnamon stick

Directions

  1. Mix piloncillo and water together in a saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally until the piloncillo is fully melted.
  2. Pour in milk, Maseca, and vanilla bean until the ingredients are all dissolved and thoroughly combined.
  3. Add the cinnamon stick, reduce heat, and continue to stir frequently for about half an hour.
  4. Pour into mugs using a sieve.
To sip another traditional Day of the Dead drink, make your own Mexican hot chocolate spiked with chiles.

3. Spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate


Ingredients

3 cups low-fat milk
¾ cup bittersweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon Abuelita Mexican chocolate
¾ teaspoon ground ancho chiles
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon plus ⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
A pinch of salt
3 cinnamon sticks, broken in half

Directions

  1. Pour all of the ingredients—except the cinnamon sticks—into a medium saucepan, bringing to a simmer and stirring often.
  2. Add the cinnamon sticks, cover the saucepan, and remove from the heat.
  3. Let the cinnamon soak, and bring to simmer once again while whisking. 
  4. Remove from heat and pour into mugs.
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