Halloween is one of the first things we think of when thinking about autumn and fall activities. If you’ve ever taken a walk to admire the extensive decorations around Montclair and North Jersey, you’ll know ‘spooky season’ is taken pretty seriously around here. But another very important and ‘spooky-esque’ celebration at this time of year is Día de los Muertos. Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is perhaps the most popular holiday in Mexico that is now celebrated all over the world. While Halloween and Day of the Dead occur at nearly the same time every year and share similar customs, the two holidays are not related. Halloween has ancient Celtic roots, while the Day of the Dead has its own origins that date back to the Indigenous people of Mexico and Central America. Keep reading to learn more about this holiday and Día de los Muertos events to attend in and around New Jersey.
Please note: These events are included as a community resource and The Montclair Girl is not affiliated with any of the following events. For the most up-to-date and accurate information, including cancellations due to inclement weather, please contact the host directly.
Typically observed on November 1st and 2nd, Día de los Muertos is a time when families come together to honor their ancestors. According to The Arena Group, the Day of the Dead began roughly 3,000 years ago amongst the Aztecs, Toltecs, and Mayans. It was around this time that death and the dead should not be mourned but instead be celebrated and viewed as a natural part of life.
Most notably, the Nahua people of central Mexico believed the deceased traveled on a year-long journey to ‘Chicunamictlán,’ the Land of the Dead. Travelers would provide supplies, such as food and water, to help them on their long voyages. It was this practice that inspired the modern tradition of creating ofrendas — or altars — at their homes, in addition to leaving special offerings at graveyards.
Once the Spanish colonized Mexico in the 16th century, Catholic views of the dead influenced many Mexican customs. The holiday came to fall on November 1st and November 2nd to align with All Saints Day and All Souls Day on the Catholic calendar. The first day honors children who have passed, while the second celebrates adults. The celebration also falls around the time for harvesting, recognizing a seasonal change from light to dark as we’re transitioning into the fall.
To entice or lure spirits back to the ‘land of the living’ for the festivities, people create altars, or ofrendas, at their homes and at the gravesites of their deceased loved ones. Altars are accompanied with sentimental toys, memorable pictures, colorful marigold flowers, and skulls.
The signature skull happens to be one of the most distinguishable symbols of the holiday — which originated from a Mexican illustrator. Handmade skeleton figurines, called Calacas, are also popular and are symbolic of an active and joyful afterlife. Yellow marigolds, known as “the flower of the dead,” and other fragrant flowers are used to communicate to the spirits the richness of the offering. Altars include all four elements of life: water, the food for Earth, the candle for fire, and for wind, Papel Picado, colorful tissue paper folk art with cut-out designs to stream across the altar or the wall.
In addition, families gather at the site to eat, tell stories, and even clean the graves. The most prominent food consumed is pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, which is a yeast-based sweet egg bread. Other delicacies include calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin), Calaveras (the famous sugar skulls), tamales, atole, and spicy Mexican hot chocolate. While some people have full-on parties, and some people have a velación, or observance, the overarching theme is that rather than grieving the loss of loved ones and fearing death, one should accept death as a part of life.
Día de los Muertos Events in New Jersey + NYC
Días de los Muertos Celebration | Riverview Park — 1 Bowers Street, Jersey City
Sunday, October 30th – Friday, November 4th | 10AM – 10PM
This annual celebration will be a week-long community event with activities and promotions running across Jersey City. The festival kicks off Sunday and will include a community Ofrenda in the gazebo where the public is encouraged to bring offerings and photos of their lost loved ones. There will be free face painting and kids’ art for children. The parade kicks off at noon, followed by live Mariachi, traditional dance, and more.
Day of the Dead Mediumship Gallery | Massage by Laura, 3 Deltona Lane, Marlton, NJ
Tuesday, November 1st | 6:30PM – 8:30PM
This 2-hour mediumship event will have Laura connect with the energy of any spirits who are present and to share their messages with participants.
Día de los Muertos Party on a Boat Cruise | La Barca Cantina, West 41st Street, New York, NY
Tuesday, November 1st | 6:30PM – 9:30PM
This exclusive one-night-only Día de los Muertos celebration on La Barca Cantina, which is New York City’s first and only floating Mexican Bar + Restaurant, features a 3-hour event. It includes a 2-hour sail on the Hudson and will feature sugar skull face art paintings, traditional Mexican dance performances, and Mexican art vendors including La Sirena of NYC.
Día de los Muertos Celebration with Yasser Tejeda | Time Out Market New York, 55 Water Street, DUMBO Brooklyn, NY 11201
Tuesday, November 1st | 7PM – 9PM
This party at Time Out Market’s Rooftop Bar will feature live music from Yasser Tejeda, Misguided Spirits specialty cocktails, tarot readers, and more.
Panorama Mezcal Pop Up at Tacos Güey | 37 West 19th Street New York, NY
Wednesday, November 2nd | 8:30 PM –12AM
Panorama Mezcal Pop-Up will feature Mexican spirits’ brand ambassadors as guest bartenders presenting each a cocktail for the evening. Each guest bartender will feature their brand for a specialty menu for the night.
‘Till Death Do Us Part Day of the Dead Cookie Decorating Contest | Langosta Lounge, 100 Ocean Avenue, Asbury Park, NJ
Wednesday, November 2nd | 7PM-9:30PM
This cookie-decorating workshop will include decorating sugar candy skulls. Participants can also bring photos of a loved one who has passed in order to hang them on a commemorative tree.
Secular Day of the Dead | Virtual
Wednesday, November 2nd | 6:45PM – 8:45PM
Alongside the Freethought Society, American Ethical Union will be cosponsoring a Secular Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos Zoom event. This bilingual event will start at 6:45PM (EST). Click here to register. Pre-register here.
Magnolias on the Green — Día De los | 145 Country Club Drive, Lakewood, NJ
Saturday, November 5th | 12PM – 10PM
$20 admission to this event includes live entertainment by Cosmic Jerry Band, DJ Rich Sparta, Mariachis, drum circles (bring your own drums), sugar skull/ghoul face painting, The Haunted Garden, fire pits (with s’mores), games + amusements, and more.
Día de los Muertos with the Arts Council of Princeton | Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton, NJ
Saturday, November 5th | 3PM
This free, family-friendly outdoor festival helps locals learn about this culturally rich holiday with music by Mariachi Oro de Mexico, dance by El Grupo De Danza Folklorica La Sagrada Familia, delicious food from El Sabor Oaxaqueño, and hands-on projects inspired by traditional folk art.
Día de los Muertos Late Night Celebration | 272 Meserole Street, Brooklyn, NY
Saturday, November 5th | 6PM – 12PM
This event is a celebration of Mexican cuisine, entertainment, culture, and cocktails. It’s 21+ and dressing up and face painting are encouraged.