Day of the Dead Vocabulary

Día de Miertos in CDMX


El Neri / Getty Images

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


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 research pictures of more altars.

02 of 17


Angelito statue

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




Carol Wood / Getty Images 

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

La Catrina

La Calavera Catrina by Posada

Metropolitan Museum of Art

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 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

TripSavvy / 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

Hanal Pixan

Marysol* / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

In the Mayan 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


An Tzompantli Aztec skull wall altar

TripSavvy / 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 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 referred to as an ofrenda.

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13 of 17

Pan de Muerto

Pan de muerto Oaxaca

Religious Images / 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 vary 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

Papel Picado

Papel picado

Valerie Hinojosa / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Papel picado is decoratively cut paper that 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

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. They may depict religious themes, but more often they depict death in a playful manner.

16 of 17

Todos los Santos

Altar saint

TripSavvy / 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. These "angels" are believed to have died before their souls could be sullied by sin.

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17 of 17


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.