Dia de los Muertos Glossary

dia de los muertos catrina

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a 2-day holiday in which relatives celebrate the lives of those who have passed. November 1st is All Saints’ Day, when Mexicans pay homage to the souls of the children and November 2nd is All Souls’ Day, when the souls of those who died in adulthood are honored. Relatives gather at cemeteries throughout Mexico, bringing bread, fruit, decorated sugar skulls, as well as candles and the favorite food of the people they are remembering. The mood is far from morbid: it is lively, upbeat and a celebration of life!

Here are a few glossary terms so you can participate in this colorful and flavorful holiday:

Altar de Muertos – a private altar built to hold the offerings that family and/or friends prepare for their dead loved ones. The intent is to encourage the souls to visit, so they will hear the prayers and the comments being directed toward them. In order to attract the soul of the beloved one, an altar must contain specific elements and offerings: a photo of the one being honored, incense and candles, marigolds, sugar skulls, a glass of water and their favorite food, book, music, cigar, tequila, toys or anything else that might help them remember their life on earth.

To learn more about Altars de Muertos, read our article entitled “Dia de los Muertos Altars in Tepic, Nayarit 2013 / Tribute to Franciscan Fray Pascual Duran Rosales” by Lic. Jesus Carranza Diaz.

Angelitos – the souls of the children who have died; literally “little angels.”

Atole – a warm corn masa drink served to nourish and warm the spirits. The consistency of atole varies from almost porridge-like to a thin, pourable drink depending on how much masa is used.

View recipe for Atole de Masa 

Calaca – a whimsical skeleton figure that represents death.

Calavera or Calaverita (shown above) – a molded sugar skull decorated with icing, glitter and foil prepared for Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The sugar represents the sweetness of life, while the skull represents the sadness of death.

Calaveras – songs, short poems or satirical obituaries that mock friends and/or public figures.

Careta – a mask worn by dancers to scare the dead away at the end of the celebrations.

Catrina (shown above) – a female skeleton created by famed Día de los Muertos artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Catrín or Catrina means “a wealthy man or woman” and it is said in a sarcastic manner.

Cempazuchitl – a yellow marigold, the traditional flower of this holiday and the symbol of death (also known as cempasuchil or zempasuchitl). It is believed that the scent of the petals forms a welcome path for the spirits to return to their altar or grave.

Copal or Copalli – a scented resin used to make incense to clear the path for a spirits return.

Ofrenda – an offering set on the altars to attract the returning souls.


Pan de los Muertos (shown above) – sweet egg bread is an important part of Dia de los Muertos. The small varieties shown here are filled with jam, chocolate or topped with sesame seeds. We also found skulls stuffed with cheese and skeleton bread displayed at Walmart in Puerto Vallarta.

Panteón – cemetery or graveyard. In many parts of Mexico, family members gather at the graves of their loved ones to be with the souls of the departed. It is common for family members to clean and decorate the gravesites with flowers and candles.

Papel Picado (shown above) – colorful tissue or crepe paper with intricate, festive designs cut out used for decoration.

Velas – candles. Hundreds of candles are lit to guide the souls to their altars in the cemetery.

by Allyson Williams

This story was submitted by one of our regular contributors. To learn more about the author/photographer, click on the “Contributors” tab near the top of the page. If you want to join in and share information, stories and photos of Jaltemba Bay, Mexico, please email them to Allyson@JaltembaBayLife.com

Leave a Review

2 Reviews on “Dia de los Muertos Glossary”

  1. :

    Yes a wonderful article, I agree. Death is what we pay for life. To have people celebrate our lives is WHAT, AND WHY we should live. I will be celebrating many. Thank you for this information and custom!

  2. :

    Great article, Allyson! Dia de los Muertos is one of the most interesting holidays there is (and one of my favourite)! One of my all-time reads is by my friend and mentor, Shawn Haley, titled "Day of the Dead - When Two Worlds Meet in Oaxaca". Another good read, in English and Spanish, is "Cuentos de el Dia de los Muertos - Day of the Dead Folk Tales" by Salvador Gonzalez. Enjoy!!

Leave a Review

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *