A traditional Day of the Dead altar at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington. The altar, or ofrenda, honors Mexican singer Juan Gabriel and other cultural figures who died in the last year. (Mexican Cultural Institute)

You may see a lot of spooky skeleton decorations around Halloween, alongside pictures of sharp-toothed vampires and ghosts that say “boo.”

But in Mexico and in Mexican American communities across the United States, stylized skulls and bones are a sign of something different: a holiday called Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The holiday — which actually spans two days, not one — features smiling skeletons and a sugary treat, a calavera, that is shaped like a human skull. But “nothing related to Day of the Dead is about being frightened,” says Luis Fitch, a Mexican-born designer who created a special art installation in Washington for the holiday. “Halloween is about being scared, but Day of the Dead is about remembering people who have died.”

The holiday was born from ancient Aztec and Catholic celebrations of the dead. You may know that the name Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Eve, the day before the Christian holiday of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day, when saints are honored. Similarly, the Day of the Dead begins on All Saints’ Day itself, November 1.


A skeleton figure is part of the traditional altar. (Harrison Smith/The Washington Post)

Flowers are also part of the decorations. (Harrison Smith/The Washington Post)

“Mexico is a big, big country,” says Alberto Fierro, executive director of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, and “Day of the Dead celebrations vary depending on where you are.”

The most traditional celebrations, he says, are usually in central and southern Mexico. Many families celebrate by building small home altars called ofrendas. These feature photos of dead friends or family members, as well as a collection of their favorite drinks and foods. There could be a few loaves of sweet pan de muerto, bread of the dead, which is topped with sugar and decorated with bones shapes. But all this food stays uneaten — or, according to tradition, it goes uneaten by the living.

The ofrendas are supposed to attract the souls of the dead, which are guided from the cemetery by paths lined with bright yellow and orange marigold flowers.

Families also take food to cemeteries, where community celebrations are often held on November 2. This time, it’s all right to do a little eating and drinking.

“You visit the cemetery, clean it and spend time with the person you love,” says Fitch, “staying awake all night with food, flowers and drinks.”


Mexican-born designer Luis Fitch created this special ofrenda at the Mexican Cultural Institute. The altar was inspired by Aztec pyramids and papel picado, a decorative cut paper that is common during the holiday. (Harrison Smith/The Washington Post)

In honor of Day of the Dead, Fitch made a larger-than-life ofrenda at the Mexican Cultural Institute. His altar isn’t for a specific person, though the institute also has a more traditional altar for Mexican cultural figures including Juan Gabriel, a singer and songwriter.

Fitch’s altar is inspired by papel picado, decorative paper that is cut with scissors to form skulls and other designs.

“In Anglo [non-Hispanic] culture, we don’t talk about death. We’re all so scared,” he says. Humorous skulls and skeleton figures can help change that.

The design of the skulls in Fitch’s ofrenda piece are both whimsical and highly personal. The top three skulls in the pattern, he says, are modeled after himself, his wife and his son.

If You Go

What: Day of the Dead ofrendas (altars)

Where: Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th Street NW.

When: October 29 through November 14 for Luis Fitch’s contemporary altar and October 29 through November 21 for the traditional altar. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday noon to 4 p.m.

How much: Free.

Special event: An opening celebration October 29, from noon to 4 p.m., will include hot chocolate and a performance of two traditional Day of the Dead songs at 12:30.

For more information: A parent can visit instituteofmexicodc.org or call 202-728-1628.