Celebrate Day of the Dead with This Essential Spanish Vocabulary List
Few festivities are as popular worldwide and as identified with the Spanish-speaking world as the Day of the Dead. Yes, it started in Mexico, but it’s now a global celebration. It deserves our attention, as you may need some vocabulary related to this commemoration one day.
With roots in the indigenous world of the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, the Day of the Dead is a cultural expression that shows the wisdom of these ancient peoples and one that’s still relevant today.
Join me on this trip through Mexican history and culture to discover a rich, spectacular tradition. We’ll dig deep into Day of the Dead history, customs, and common vocabulary.
What’s the Day of the Dead?
A celebration of death (but also life) originated in what is now Mexico a long time ago. Known in Spanish as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead is a tradition enjoying a worldwide boom in popularity for many reasons, but especially thanks to the spectacular Disney animated film Coco released in 2017.
During the Day of the Dead celebrations, Mexicans and people around the world remember their loved ones who are not with them any more. By demystifying death, Mexicans found a way to deal with it and stay away from sadness and tragic undertones.
In the ancient indigenous Toltec and Aztec cultures, it was disrespectful to mourn the dead. In their cosmovision, death was just another stage of life. The dead were still considered members of the community, and for one day every year they were believed to return to Earth.
After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, indigenous customs and traditions mixed with Christian and European beliefs, producing a whole lot of new cultural expressions as a result of the mestizaje. Today’s Día de los Muertos is a mixture of indigenous traditions with Catholic beliefs and a little help from our marketing friends.
Cultural Heritage of Humanity
In 2008, UNESCO inscribed the Day of the Dead in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO made a point that, as practiced by the indigenous communities of Mexico, this festivity had an immense cultural value.
The Day of the Dead is a tradition with 3,000 years of history whose origins can be traced to a time before the Aztec people even existed. That’s thirty centuries ago or, if you want to be even more impressed, a millennium before Jesus.
The biggest, most traditional, and impressive Day of the Dead celebration takes place every year in Patzcuaro, a little town in the western Mexican state of Michoacan. People from all over the country gather in there and paddle little canoes to the island of Janitzio in the center of Patzcuaro Lake. Being on that island during Día de los Muertos is one of the most fantastic experiences you can imagine.
Celebrating Day of the Dead
Let’s now talk about what you need to celebrate Día de Muertos like a Mexican and start working on that vocabulary.
If you really want to celebrate an authentic Día de los Muertos festivity, you simply can’t do without the following items:
Altar de Muertos – Altar of the Dead
This is the most personal item in any Day of the Dead celebration. It’s an altar built to your own people. It includes several distinctive features like a picture of your beloveds, food, and orange marigold flowers.
Cempasuchil – Orange Marigold Flowers
Think of them as the Mexican version of Halloween pumpkins. Cempasuchil flowers are everywhere to be seen during Día de los Muertos. The whole atmosphere of the celebration is painted in the orange tones of this flower.
Pan de Muerto – Bread of the Dead
Although it is somehow losing importance nowadays, pan de muerto used to be the one thing that urban families in Mexico got to celebrate Día de los Muertos. In Mexico’s big cities you won’t see fantastic celebrations like in Patzcuaro, Janitzio, or other villages across the country. But cosmopolitan Mexicans still buy pan de muerto every November 2nd to commemorate their dead. It’s just a special piece of sweet bread available only at this time of year.
What About Other Countries?
Celebrating life through death and commemorating our own people who have passed away isn’t an idea exclusive to Mexicans. Different countries have similar traditions, although the Mexican Day of the Dead is the one that has gained worldwide attention.
The Fiesta de las Ñatitas is celebrated in November in Bolivia. It includes skulls and is a mix of Catholic and indigenous beliefs, but that’s where the similarities with the Día de Muertos end. This tradition is completely different from the Mexican one, and it’s a window into the indigenous cultures of the Andean highlands.
Brazilians also celebrate Day of Finados on November 2nd. This tradition started in the Middle Ages to remember to pray for the dead, and it has survived for ten centuries. It’s similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, but it’s not as important in their country nor as colorful as the Mexican celebration.
Day of the Dead Vocabulary
As with every celebration, Día de los Muertos has its own array of terms and vocabulary. Let’s learn some of the most common words used during this festivity.
la calavera de azúcar – sugar skull
la tumba – tomb, grave
el ataúd – coffin
la catrina – skeletons
Catrinas have developed a life of their own. These fancy-dressed skeletons who represent death have become a symbol of the celebration. Kids in Mexico now paint their faces as catrines and catrinas instead of getting a costume for Halloween. What you see in the movie Coco are basically a lot of catrinas.
el copal – incense
An Aztec version of incense. It’s not exactly the same, but it has the same function.
el papel picado – paper cut-out
la vela – candle
los muertos – dead
la muerte – death
el cementerio – cemetery
las ofrendas – offerings
los angelitos – little angels
How Do You Celebrate the Day of the Dead?
Let us know how you celebrate the Day of the Dead in your community in the comments, and start a conversation with students from all over the world!
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