Day of the Dead Vocabulary

Glossary of words about Día de los Muertos

Día de Muertos is a Mexican holiday that honors and celebrates the spirits of those who have passed on. The observances surrounding this holiday have many nuances that can be difficult to understand, especially for people who are not familiar with the words that are used to talk about it. Here are some vocabulary words that may be useful for understanding Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations.

  • 01 of 17

    Altar

    Day of the Dead Altar
    Gabriel Perez / Getty Images

    For Day of the Dead, many people place altars (also called ofrendas, "offerings") in their homes to honor their loved ones who have died. There may also be altars set up in schools, businesses and public spaces. The form of the altar may vary, but it often has several tiers and is filled with candles, flowers, fruit and other food items. The spirits are believed to consume the essence of the foods left out for them. Find out how to make your own Day of the Dead altar, or see pictures of more altars.

  • 02 of 17

    Angelitos

    Angelito
    lo.tangelini / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
    Angelitos are "little angels." This word is used to talk about children who have died and who are believed to return on the night of the 31st, and stay through the day of November 1st, visiting with their families. The spirits of adults who died visit on the following day. The altars are often prepared in a special way to receive the angelitos, then other elements, such as cigarettes and bottles of liquor, are added later, when the adult spirits arrive.
  • 03 of 17

    Calaca

    Calaca
    RociH / Pixabay
    This is a Mexican Spanish slang word for skeleton. Calacas figure prominently in Day of the Dead decorations. Sometimes the term "La Calaca" is used to signify death personified. Other words that are also used for the personification of death include "la Pelona" (the bald one), "la Flaca" (the skinny one), "la Huesuda" (the bony one). These are all used in the feminine form.
  • 04 of 17
    calavera de azucar
    Jorge Nava / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    A calavera is a skull, a calaverita is a little skull, and a calavera de azucar is a sugar skull. These are placed on the altar and often have the name of the deceased person inscribed on the forehead - or as a playful gesture, the name of a person who is still alive.

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  • 05 of 17

    Catrina, La

    La Calavera Catrina by Posada
    Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    La Catrina is a character that was created by Mexican lithographer and illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913). La Catrina is a female skeleton who is dressed in the style of upper-class women of the period. Posada initiated the tradition of depicting contemporary figures as skeletons in a humorous way as a form of social commentary. La Catrina has become a prominent figure in Day of the Dead decorations and celebrations.

  • 06 of 17
    Day of the Dead Marigolds
    Sergio Mendoza Hochmann / Getty Images
    This type of flower is also known as flor de muerto, and is used in Day of the Dead altars and to decorate graves. It grows plentifully at this time of year in Mexico and its pungent odor is said to attract the spirits who come to visit their mortal loved ones for Day of the dead.
  • 07 of 17
    Day of the Dead comparsa
    SEASTOCK / Getty Images

    A comparsa is a carnival-like celebration in which people dress up in costumes and dance. Comparsas play an important part in Oaxaca's Day of the Dead celebrations, where costumes are incredibly creative and surprising.

  • 08 of 17

    Copal

    Copal incense
    ML Harris / Getty Images
    Copal is an incense made of resin that comes from the tree of the same name. Copal incense was burned in Mesoamerica in ancient times, and is still burned for special ceremonies and is often placed on or near Day of the Dead altars, as another olfactory element to draw in the spirits. The word copal is derived from the Nahuatl word copalli, which means "incense".
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  • 09 of 17

    Fieles Difuntos

    All Saints Day in the Cemetery
    © Suzanne Barbezat
    Fieles Difuntos means "faithful departed" and the term refers to the Catholic celebration of All Souls. In Catholicism, the commemoration or honoring of all the faithful departed is celebrated on November 2nd, whereas November 1st is the celebration of All Saints, Todos los Santos.
  • 10 of 17
    Hanal Pixan
    Marysol* / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    In the Maya area, Day of the Dead celebrations are called Hanal Pixan. One of the distinctive aspects about the way the Maya celebrate Day of the Dead is by preparing special foods for the occasion, like mucbipollo, which is a type of large tamal which is cooked in an underground pit.

  • 11 of 17

    Mictlan

    Aztec skull rack
    © Suzanne Barbezat

    Mictlan was the place of the dead of the Aztecs, the lowest level of the underworld. Mictlantecuhtli was the god who presided over this underworld, along with his wife, Mictlancíhuatl. In the Prehispanic tradition, this is the place the dead would travel from to revisit their loved ones.

  • 12 of 17

    Ofrenda

    ofrenda display Day of the Dead
    Patricia Marroquin / Getty Images
    Ofrenda means "offering" in Spanish, and when talking about Day of the Dead celebrations, it is used to refer to the things that are placed on the altar for the spirits. Sometimes the altar itself is refered to as an ofrenda.
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  • 13 of 17

    Pan de muerto

    Pan de muerto Oaxaca
    Religious Images/UIG/Getty Images

    One of the foods that is most associated with Day of the Dead is a special type of bread called pan de muerto, which means "bread of the dead." The bread can very greatly from region to region, sometimes it is similar to pan de yema, a yellow bread made with egg yolks, or it may be white sweet rolls with bones shaped on top. Pan de muerto is placed on the altar, and also consumed, often dunked in coffee or hot chocolate.

  • 14 of 17
    Valerie Hinojosa / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Papel picado is decoratively cut paper which is used in Mexico for decorations for all holidays and fiestas. For Day of the Dead papel picado is placed around the edges of the altar, and adds color to the altar. Some say that the four elements are present in the altar and the movement of the papel picado represents air.

  • 15 of 17
    Tapete de arena
    Lucy Nieto / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    In some regions of Mexico, sand sculptures or tapestries (tapetes de arena) are a vital part of the celebration. These are created with sand and pigment and sometimes other elements such as seeds, beans, flower petals and sawdust, and may depict religious themes, but more often depict death in a playful manner.

  • 16 of 17

    Todos los Santos

    Altar saint
    © Suzanne Barbezat

    Todos los Santos is "All Saints." Celebrated on the first of November, this is the first day of the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebration, when deceased children and infants, los angelitos, are honored, since they are believed to have died before their souls could be sullied by sin. More about the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day.

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  • 17 of 17

    Xantolo

    Xantolo: Music after death
    FlickrVision / Getty Images

    Xantolo is a regional celebration of Day of the Dead. It is celebrated in the Huasteca area of Mexico, which is located in the northeastern part of Mexico and includes parts of the states of Hidalgo, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí, and Querétaro. Xantolo celebrations include special dances. Read more about Xantolo.