Two young women in the central square of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, celebrating the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos).

photo: iStock / Ying Yang

Día de los Muertos, otherwise known as the Day of the Dead, is quickly approaching on Nov. 1. 

The Mexican holiday honors loved ones who have passed into the afterlife. Since it occurs the day after Halloween, people often (wrongly) assume that the two holidays are somehow connected. But that's definitely not the case. 

The traditions of Día de los Muertos reached an even broader audience following the massive success of the Disney film Coco, which came out last year. But before you reach for the face paint, it's important to understand the history and culture behind this deeply sacred holiday.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is just around the corner.

The Mexican holiday is an opportunity for the living to honor loved ones who have passed away.

It takes place every year beginning on Nov. 1 and ending on Nov. 2. 

Because of its proximity to Halloween, Día de los Muertos is often associated with the spooky holiday, even though the two are pretty different.

Calaveras, or sugar skulls, are a significant component of Día de los Muertos. 

Some people think that wearing the face paint is nothing more than costumery. 

But as the website DayOfTheDead.Holiday puts it, the colorful skull designs "are not intended to be scary." 

Moreover, the colorful paint is "meant to represent our mortality in a united way," the website explains. 

So, to clarify, sugar skulls aren't part of a Halloween costume. They're part of a centuries-old tradition that represents the unification of families, regardless of whether they're living or dead.

Another critical element of Día de los Muertos is la ofrenda, or the offering, that's created to pay tribute to the deceased.

Photos of loved ones who have passed are often put on display to commemorate their lives on earth. Las ofrendas can also include the favorite items of dead loved ones, like their favorite foods and drinks.

Marigolds are an important part of las ofrendas because they are thought to guide the dead from the afterlife back to the living world.

Marigolds are sometimes placed at the grave sites of the dead as well.

Día de los Muertos is a beautiful, vibrant holiday that's incredibly special to many Mexicans and those of Mexican descent. First and foremost, it is a celebration of life that should not be culturally appropriated by those who don't make an effort to understand and appreciate its deeper meaning.