Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and throughout the world on November 1 and 2.
It’s a celebration of life that honors friends and family who have passed away. Colorful altars are erected in homes and public spaces featuring favorite foods, drinks (most notably, tequila) and personal mementos of the deceased.
Dia de los Muertos altar decorations usually include hand-cut paper marigolds or fresh marigolds.
Why Marigolds for Dia de los Muertos?
It is believed that the spirits of the dead visit the living during the celebration. Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colors and pungent scent.
Marigolds, or flowers in general, also represent the fragility of life.
The marigold most commonly used in Dia de los Muertos celebrations is the Targetes erecta, Mexican marigold or Aztec marigold, otherwise known as cempasuchitl or flower of the dead. Mexican marigolds are quite tall, reaching up to 3′.
Where do Marigolds Grow?
Marigolds are native to North and South America, growing particularly well in Mexico and in the wild in the states of México, Puebla, and Veracruz. They also grow extremely well here in Southern California, as you can see by the enormous marigold sections in some of our plant nurseries.
How Were They Used by the Aztecs?
It’s believed that Dia de los Muertos stems from an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl whose role was to guard the bones of the dead.
The Aztecs considered Marigolds a sacred flower so bred them to create bigger and more attractive blooms. Aztecs used the sacred flower for decorative and medicinal purposes. The flowers are edible and thought by the Aztecs to cure hiccups and even heal those struck by lightning.
While the history of the marigold post-Aztecs is a bit murky, all Targetes species can be traced back to the New World. Spanish explorers took seeds from the Aztecs. These seeds survived the long trips across the Atlantic, a testament to how hearty these flowers are) and were cultivated in Spain, France and then northern Africa. (This is why we have French marigolds and African marigolds. What is even more confusing is that Mexican marigolds are often referred to as African marigolds, even though they originated in Mexico.)
At-Home Dia de Los Muertos Activities
If you’d like to honor a loved during this season, create a traditional altar or place marigolds in the yard and in vases around the house. Many also make paper marigolds with tissue and pipe cleaners, a fun kids craft, or bake pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a common offering.
Whatever you do, remember that despite the context, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life and those near and dear who have moved on to the next.