A woman with a painted face celebrating Day of the Dead with candles

Day of the Dead: Essential Vocabulary For A Soulful Celebration

Dennys Caldera Boka Published on November 1, 2023

“El Día de los Muertos” (the Day of the Dead) is a lively Mexican celebration that honors departed loved ones. This unique holiday is a colorful mixture of customs and rituals. However, the Day of the Dead is celebrated not only in Mexico but also in many parts of the world. All Souls Day, known as All Saints Day, is observed by various religious communities during a similar timeframe as the Day of the Dead.

In this article, we’ll explore the must-know words associated with this day, and understand the rich traditions that make “Día de los Muertos” a remarkable celebration of life, unity, and remembrance.

A Day of the Dead procession with candles and painted faces

What is “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead)?

“Día de los Muertos” is a vibrant and picturesque holiday traditionally celebrated on November 1st and 2nd that combines indigenous beliefs with Catholicism, creating a unique and beautiful cultural event. In the indigenous belief, the Day of the Dead is when the spirits of the departed return briefly to reunite with their families and partake in offerings on special altars. This tradition combines Catholic rituals brought by the Spanish with the ancient pre-Hispanic observance of the Day of the Dead.

How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

The Day of the Dead is celebrated with various customs and traditions. Families create altars adorned with photographs of deceased relatives, candles, and marigold flowers, along with the departed’s favorite foods and beverages. Sugar skulls, intricately decorated, are offered as gifts with the deceased name inscribed, and people enjoy sweet bread in skull or crossbones shapes. Marigold flowers are used to attract spirits and guide them back to their place of rest.

Then, processions visit cemeteries, people paint their faces, and traditional music plays. Finally, families clean and decorate graves, sharing stories and memories, as they prepare special dishes like mole and tamales, creating a memorable feast.

10 Must-Know Day of the Dead Vocabulary Words

To truly appreciate this culturally rich tradition, it’s important to understand the vocabulary that encompasses its essence. From the colorful “Calaveras de Azúcar” to the solemn “Panteón,” these words carry profound significance within the celebration, embodying the joyful remembrance of those who have passed and the lively festivities that mark this unique occasion.

Altar (Altar)

An “altar” in the Day of the Dead celebration is a central element where families place offerings to honor their deceased loved ones. However, this altar is not for worship, but to invite the spirits back to the world of the living. It typically includes photographs, candles, and marigold flowers. The sweet-smelling copal incense is used to show respect and send prayers while making the area around the altar clean and pure.

Food and beverages loved by the departed are also placed on the altar, along with mementos that represent their lives. The altar serves as a focal point for families to remember and celebrate the spirits of their ancestors. 

Calaveras de Azúcar (Sugar Skulls)

“Calaveras de Azúcar” are intricately decorated sugar skulls that are a hallmark of the celebration. These sugar skulls are inscribed with the names of the deceased and often painted with vibrant colors.

Day of the Dead painted skull ("Calavera" in Spanish)

These sweet representations are not merely decorative but serve a deep symbolic purpose. They embody the essence of life’s sweetness and commemorate those who have gracefully passed on.

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)

“Pan de Muerto” is a cherished delicacy that plays a central role in the celebration. This sweet bread takes on the shape of skulls and crossbones, accentuated by a sugary finish. The bread is not just a treat; it symbolizes the profound concept of the circle of life and death. Its round shape mirrors the cycle of existence, and the bone-shaped decorations elegantly signify the presence of the departed. 

Cempasúchil (Marigold Flowers)

“Cempasúchil” refers to the marigold flowers used to decorate altars and grave sites. Their vibrant orange color and strong scent are believed to guide the spirits of the dead back to the world of the living. These marigold flowers are nature’s contribution to the celebration, adding a touch of vivid and innate beauty to the festivities.

Ofrendas (Offerings)

“Ofrendas” are the offerings presented on the altars, which constitute a heartfelt invitation to the spirits of the deceased to join the world of the living once more. These offerings consist of a loving selection of food, drinks, and symbolic mementos that represent the departed. The act of sharing a meal with those who have transitioned is a deeply rooted gesture of affection and respect.

Veladoras (Candles)

Day of the Dead processional with candles ("veladoras" in Spanish)

“Veladoras” are candles used to illuminate the path for returning spirits. The gentle and warm glow of these candles serves as a beacon guiding the spirits on their journey, leading them back to the world of the living. It also adds a spiritual ambiance to the celebration, creating a sacred and solemn atmosphere.


“Catrina” is a popular skeletal figure representing death. It was created by the Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada, and it’s a Day of the Dead icon.

A woman dressed as Catrina for Day of the Dead. She has a face painted like a skeleton and a beautiful red dress.

Often depicted as an elegantly dressed skeleton, it is a satirical portrayal of death and a reminder of the impermanence of life. The Catrina figure is commonly seen in Day of the Dead art and parades.

Panteón (Cemetery)

The “panteón” is the cemetery where families visit to honor their loved ones. They engage in the thoughtful cleaning and decoration of tombstones, spend time at the gravesites, and exchange stories and memories. The cemetery emerges as a central place of reverence during the Day of the Dead celebration, offering a tangible connection to the spirits of the departed.


“Calaca” is a colloquial term for a skeleton or skull, often used in the context of the Day of the Dead. It serves as a gentle yet powerful reminder that death is an intrinsic and natural part of the cycle of life. This symbolic representation is frequently and playfully integrated into the artwork and celebrations that characterize this unique cultural event.


“Maracas” are lively musical instruments that contribute to the rhythmic heartbeat of Day of the Dead celebrations. They consist of a hollow, often spherical, body, usually made of wood, filled with small, loose items like beans, seeds, or small metal balls. The maraca has a handle or grip at one end for the player to hold. Music and dancing are essential components of the festivities, and maracas provide an infectious and lively rhythm that enhances cultural expression, embodying the vibrant spirit of the occasion.

Ways to Practice Day of the Dead Vocabulary

Practicing Day of the Dead vocabulary is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the cultural richness of this tradition. You can start by creating your own “ofrenda”, or altar, at home, featuring the items you’ve learned about, such as photographs, marigold flowers, and sugar skulls. Join local events or Day of the Dead workshops to engage with native speakers and further build your vocabulary through conversations and firsthand experiences.

Additionally, consider writing a journal in Spanish, describing your personal reflections on the holiday, and incorporating newly acquired words. These immersive activities will not only enhance your vocabulary but also deepen your understanding and appreciation of this beautiful Mexican celebration.

Final Thoughts

The Day of the Dead is a vibrant and profound celebration that offers a unique glimpse into the rich tapestry of Mexican culture. This beautiful tradition, blending indigenous beliefs with Catholicism, serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring connection between the living and the departed.

As we’ve explored the essential elements and vocabulary associated with this holiday, it’s clear that the Day of the Dead is more than just a one-day event. It’s a reflection of the Mexican people’s strong ties to their ancestors and a testament to the beauty of remembering and honoring those who have passed away.

Whether you’re participating in the festivities or simply learning about them, this celebration provides an opportunity to connect with the heart and soul of Mexican culture and to appreciate the profound significance of celebrating life and death in unison.

Dennys Caldera Boka

Dennys is a content writer at Langoly. He’s passionate about language learning and has been helping others achieve their goals and develop their language skills for many years. He’s interested in emerging technologies and how they can help people reskill and upskill. He loves cooking, watching sci-fi movies, and listening to podcasts. Connect with Dennys on LinkedIn.

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