Day of the Dead Vocabulary to Know

Day of the Dead Vocabulary to Know


Heading to Mexico for Day of the Dead with only “Hola” and “Gracias” in your vocabulary? Say no more!

While this Day of the Dead vocabulary guide won’t make you fluent in Spanish, it will give you an idea of what’s going on during Day of the Dead and what people are referring to.



Courtesy of Alexa Kardasch

Altares are small altars made for each person with honor and care. They are often planned ahead and some families spend up to two months’ salary on supplies or hire professional help. The belief is that the dead make a long journey back to our world and it’s important they have an altar with offerings they’ll enjoy upon arrival. It’s important to note that altars are made to honor ancestors and the deceased, not worship them. While altares are most commonly made for individual loved ones, you’ll also see grand altars for popular figures in society that have passed on, like Frida Kahlo.



Courtesy of Cristina Zapata Pérez

Atole is a beverage made of hominy flour (corn), sugar, cinnamon and sometimes fruit or chocolate, served warm with tamales. While this tasty, porridge-like drink is often served with breakfast and dinner throughout the year, it’s especially popular on Día De Los Muertos and Christmas.



Calacas means skulls or skeletons and though strongly associated with Day of the Dead festivities, calacas are depicted year-round. You’ll notice their bony depictions are much different than skeletons in the United States. Calacas in Mexico display the Mexican attitude towards death—they’re depicted as dancing, drinking, playing instruments and getting married.

As Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously writes,

“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death…jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”



Courtesy of Tomascastelazo

Calavera refers to any portrayal of a human skull but especially refers to sugar skulls and artistic renditions of skulls like Jose Guadalupe Posada’s Calavera Garbancera that eventually became Mexico’s Dame of Death or La Calavera Catrina.


Calavera Literaria

Calaveras literarias are short satirical poems about living politicians, prominent figures or friends written as if they’re dead or funny poems written with a particular deceased person in mind. They may underline features or memories from the deceased’s life, tease or even make jokes about the living. They initially came about to touch upon ideas, thoughts and feelings that are hard to express, especially political ones. These short pieces were commonly written alongside drawings of skeletons and skulls in newspapers in the early 19th century.



Orange and yellow marigold flowers placed on graves, altares and used for decoration. It’s believed marigolds have the scent of death and their pungent smell guides the spirits home on Day of the Dead.



A parade or procession of costumed dancers, musicians and often children with their parents and teachers. These carnival-like parades differ based on what part of Mexico you’re in and what holiday is being celebrated.



Courtesy of Jordi Cueto-Felgueroso Arocha

Copal comes from the Copalli Tree and burning its resin dates back to Mesoamerican times with the Aztecs and Incas. Known as the Mexican Frankincense, the scent of copal is believed to attract spirits and guide them home, making it an integral piece on an altar.


Hanal Pixán

Hanal Pixán literally translates as “food of souls” making this Mayan celebration centered around food for the spirits. Grand dishes of traditional foods like mucbipollo, chachak uah and pol’kan are prepared for the spirits to feast upon when they arrive back to the earthly realm. This holiday is basically the Mayan version of Day of the Dead and contains many of the same rituals like setting up altars and visiting graves.



The nine-level underworld in Aztec Mythology ruled by King Mictlantecuhtli and his wife Mictecacihuatl. Mictecacihuatl also known as  “Lady of the Dead” or “Goddess of the Underworld” is thought to preside over celebrations honoring the dead, hence her large role and iconography in Day of the Dead.



Courtesy of Merystef

Ofrendas or offerings are the items put on the altar of a deceased person. Typical ofrendas include candles, water, cempazúchitl, pan de muerto, calaveras, alcohol, cigarettes, salt, copal incense, the deceased’s favorite food, drinks and possessions, papel picado, images of saints and an image of the deceased, among other things. Ofrendas are very personal and depend greatly on what the deceased was like while alive.


Pan de Muerto

Courtesy of Marlene

Known as “bread of the dead,” pan de muerto is a sweet bread baked with anise seeds, a hint of orange flavor and bone designs over top. It comes in all shapes and sizes depending on what part of Mexico you’re in, and it’s eaten by the living through October as well as an essential piece on altars for the dead.


Papel Picado

Directly translated as “cut paper” or “confetti” papel picado is tissue paper that’s been intricately cut with scissors or using a chisel. You’ll see it all across Mexico year round—sometimes strung overhead in rows from street to street or along walls like in Sayulita—but Day of the Dead papel picado depicts calacas and skeletons. This mesmerizing tissue paper is hung all over and used in altars.



Pulque is a milky alcoholic beverage made by fermenting the sap of agave plants. It dates back to pre-Columbian times and was thought to be the drink of the gods. Although slightly alcoholic, it’s commonly drank during pregnancy for the nutrients it contains. Pulque is served during Day of the Dead and used as an ofrenda, much like atole.



Terciopelo or cockscomb is a flower commonly used alongside cempazúchitl in altars, specifically red ones or Tercipelo rojo.

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