Day of The Dead Decorations and What They Mean

Throughout the centuries, cultures across the globe have created unique and meaningful traditions to honor our remarkable loved ones who have passed away. Many of these celebrations of life hold space for the incredible relationships we shared and the ties that bind us together through generations, sharing the stories of our ancestors and our contemporaries alike.

In Mexico, Day of the Day is a holiday rich in culture and tradition, honoring the impact and legacy of the diamonds in our lives. By learning more about Day of the Dead decorations and their meanings, we can find new ways to celebrate our loved ones for decades to come. 

What Is the Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead — or Dia de los Muertos — is believed to be the one day of the year that the souls of our past ancestors reunite with the living. Their lives are celebrated with food, drinks, and merriment. Day of the Dead is celebrated from midnight on November 1st until November 2nd. It is believed that the doors of heaven are opened on midnight of November 1st for children who have passed and November 2nd for adults.

November 1st is known as Dia de los Angelitos, or Day of the Little Angels. This is the day that families welcome the souls of children that passed away. On this day, families create an altar that includes their beloved little one’s favorite foods to encourage a visit. This helps families remember their loved ones who have passed and share their stories within their community. 

November 2nd is known as Dia de los Difuntos, a day specific to the return of adult family members. On this day, altars may consist of alcoholic beverages in addition to foods. Both celebrations generally take place at home, filled with fond memories and spending time with family. 

These celebrations concluded with the Day of the Dead, where the spirits of all souls come together for a reunion with the living. This is a public celebration and collective gathering to celebrate loved ones who have passed on. People dress up and paint their faces, preparing for parades in the streets, feasts, and music.

In preparation for visiting ancestors, families will prepare offerings (ofrendas) on altars that host pictures of their passed loved ones. Altars are decorated with bright marigold flowers and decadent foods in hopes of encouraging ancestor visits. 

The History Behind the Holiday

Day of the Dead has rich roots in Aztec traditions, dating back over 3,000 years ago. The Aztecs believed that when a person died, their soul traveled into the Land of the Dead. The Land of the Dead had nine levels to get through before the soul could reach its final resting place, known as Mictlán

The Aztec people used to offer food and tools to their ancestors in order to help them pass these nine levels. This inspired traditions of leaving food and drink offerings during current Day of the Dead celebrations. 

Decorations and Their Meanings

The first thing that catches our eyes at Day of the Dead celebrations is their vibrant colors. In the United States, we associate the color black with death, mourning, and grieving the life that was lost. In contrast, Day of the Dead ceremonies honor their deceased loved ones through a time of celebration and great joy, hence the bright colors used throughout their decor. 

When preparing for Day of the Dead ceremonies and parades, there is a variety of traditional decorations that will almost always be included.

Papel Picado

Papel picado is perforated paper made with intricately cut designs, generally of skulls, floral designs, and animals. This piece is significant because the holes in the paper are believed to allow the souls to travel through them. The use of paper is also meant to signify the fragility of life. 

When the wind blows the tissue paper, it is supposed to be a reminder that the spirits have arrived to reunite with the living. Papel picado creates a magical feeling during the celebration, reminding us that our loved ones are near. 

Marigold Flowers

Marigolds are the chosen flower for the Day of the Dead. Their vibrant yellowish orange color and strong scent are believed to guide the spirits home to their families. Petals are typically laid on the ground in a path from the ofrenda, as a guide for the souls. 

Like papel picado, marigolds also represent the fragility of life. The colors of the marigold represent death, quite fitting of a symbol for the Day of the Dead. 

This flower was seen as sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead. 

Ofrenda

The ofrenda is an important part of any Day of the Dead celebration as the altar that welcomes ancestors into the Land of the Living. Photographs are a common altar decoration that help us remember our incredible loved ones who we’re celebrating during the holiday. Not only are these a traditional piece of decor, but they also help us share the stories of our remarkable loved ones throughout the day. 

The ofrenda is meant to include four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. 

Water is included on the ofrenda in a pitcher so that the ancestral spirits can quench their thirst when they return from the Land of the Dead. 

Bread of the dead is meant to represent Earth. This is a sweet bread that is typically made with a circle and a cross on top to represent a skull and crossbones. This is left on the altar for hungry souls entering the Land of the Living. 

Fire is represented by the candles that are lit on the ofrenda. Candles are typically arranged in the shape of a cross, representing a compass. This is for the purpose of guiding the spirits. 

Papel picado, which is perforated paper, represents the wind. This may also be in the form of paper banners. 

These pieces of the ofrenda help us care for the souls of our ancestors, much like they cared for us in life.

Sugar Skulls

Sugar skulls are common decorations that can be found upon most altars. As the name implies, these skulls are typically made from sugar, meringue powder, and water. 

The skull represents those who have passed and the ancestors that will be accepting the offerings from the altar. The name of the departed soul is often painted on the forehead of the sugar skull. Making the skull from sugar is meant to represent the sweetness of life. 

La Catrina 

La Catrina is Mexico’s lady of the dead and the universally known symbol for the Day of the Dead. La Catrina is a lady with a skeleton face and a headdress of florals. 

Her vibrant dress is a reminder of celebration and the importance of commemorating the dead. She is believed to represent the Aztec goddess, Mictecacihuatl, whose role was to watch over the bones of the dead. 

Colors and Their Meanings

As we mentioned above, the Day of the Dead is a vibrant celebration of our loved ones who have passed on, full of color and merriment. However, the secolors are not used haphazardly. Each one holds significance that adds to the celebration of Dia de los Muertos and helps us honor the impact and legacy of our loved ones who have passed. 

Purple

During this celebration, the color purple represents pain and mourning. Purple is used to acknowledge the loss of a family’s loved one. Purple candles are typically lit on the ofrenda. 

While the Day of the Dead is a day of celebration, it is also a time to remember those who have passed. Although loss is heartbreaking, celebrating the time we shared with our loved ones can go hand-in-hand with our grief throughout the healing process. 

The presence of purple throughout these celebrations helps us honor the many complicated emotions that come alongside the loss of a loved one.

White

White represents purity and renewal as it relates to the spirits of the dead. This color signifies the souls of the dead being wiped clean. White is seen in floral displays as well as in papel picado decorations. This color is often seen in sugar skulls and skeleton decorations. 

Orange and Yellow

Orange and yellow are the colors of the marigold flower. These colors represent the duality of light and death. Laid on the ground, these flower petals provide a path that leads spirits home to their families. 

Red

Red represents the blood of life. It is meant to signify the blood of those who have passed into the Land of the Dead. 

Pink

Pink is a color that represents happiness and celebration. This is meant to signify the joy that the Day of the Dead brings as a day of sweet reunion for the living and the dead. Skeletons are typically painted with pink or dressed in pink dresses or suits to represent the celebration. Pink can also be seen in different papel picado arrangements. 

Why Do People Paint Their Faces for Day of the Dead?

Many people paint their faces on Day of the Dead to look like a skeleton, generally with white face paint covering the majority of the face with black around the eyes, nose, and mouth. This skeleton painting is meant to represent a loved one that has passed. 

The idea behind painting the face is that as an individual celebrates, eats, dances, and enjoys themselves during the Day of the Dead, they are doing this in honor of their loved one. It allows us to physically wear a reminder of our loved one throughout the day, carrying them with us as we celebrate their impact and legacy.

A Day Of Celebration

While many occasions that honor loved ones who have passed can have a somber tone, the Day of the Dead is an occasion filled with delight and celebration. It is a time where the living and the dead are reunited for a joyous festival, and its decorations and colors hold rich cultural significance.  

This holiday is a time to acknowledge loss while celebrating the life of lost ancestors. This occasion allows us to reminisce and to come together as a family in honor of the remarkable relationships we shared with our ancestors, passing their stories down for generations to come.

Sources:

Día de los Muertos | The University of New Mexico 

Mexico’s Day of the Dead: What do all the symbols mean? | SBS 

Colors of Dia de los Muertos | SD Day of the Dead  

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