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A painting of an ofrenda, or altar, filled with framed paintings, marigolds, sugar skulls, and candles.

A visual guide to the Day of the Dead

Mexican artist Guillermo Munro explains El Dia de los Muertos.

Guillermo Munro for Vox

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead holiday stretches from the eve of November 1 through November 2. During the celebration, family and friends gather to pray for and remember loved ones who have died – often with elaborate homemade altars.

Illustration of paper garlands and the landscape of a cemetery during the Day of the Dead celebrations.

What is an ofrenda?

Ofrendas are the small, personal altars honoring one person, either at the person's grave or in homes. They usually feature flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered. The spirits are believed to feast in the "essence" of the food and drinks from the altars. The food is consumed by the families days later.

Illustration of an ofrenda, contaning marigolds, bread for the dead, framed photos of dead relatives, bottles of mezcal, and sugar skulls.

What are the origins of Day of the Dead?

Pre-Colombian civilizations celebrated the deaths of ancestors for perhaps as long as 2,500 to 3,000 years. The festival that developed into the modern Day of the Dead fell in the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the "Lady of the Dead." With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, the indigenous celebration was combined with the festivities of All Saints Days and All Souls Days, and was moved to the current dates.

Illustrations of Aztec iconography, including dogs and skulls.

A map of Mexico.

Who is the skeletal Catrina?

The old Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl found a new identity as the modern "Catrina" — a skeletal female figure dressed in sumptuous clothing and giant ornate hats, who serves as a reminder that death is a fate that even the rich can't avoid.

Illustration of a skeleton in a dress and ornate hat, the goddess “Catrina”
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