As the autumn leaves start to fall and the air begins to cool, Mexico gears up for one of its most vibrant and colourful celebrations of the year: the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos).
Unlike any other festival you'll experience, this holiday is a joyous occasion filled with music, dancing, and intricate displays of altars, flowers, and food. It's a time for families and communities to come together, not to mourn their loved ones, but to celebrate their lives and the memories they left behind.
In this guide, we'll take you on a journey through the history, traditions, and preparations for the Day of the Dead in Mexico. So, grab your marigolds, light your candles, and get ready to immerse yourself in the magic of this unforgettable festival.
History and Traditions
Grave sites on the Day of the Dead. Photo by Nailotl – stock.adobe.com
The Day of the Dead is a vibrant and beloved holiday that has been celebrated in Mexico for centuries. Rich in history and steeped in tradition, this festival is a time when families and communities come together to honour and remember their loved ones who have passed away.
Origins of the celebration
Day of the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos, has its roots in pre-Columbian cultures such as the Aztecs, who celebrated a month-long festival honouring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead.
The festival was traditionally held in August. But it was later moved to coincide with the Catholic holiday All Saints' Day on November 1st and All Souls' Day on November 2nd.
The Aztecs viewed death as a normal part of life and that the dead should be honoured, not feared. They believed that the souls of the dead would come back to the world of the living during the festival to be with their loved ones.
When Spain took over the Americas in the 16th century, the holiday changed and became more in line with Catholic beliefs. The native traditions of the people were combined with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day by the Catholic Church. The result was the Day of the Dead, which combines elements of both indigenous and Christian beliefs.
Today, the Day of the Dead is an official holiday in Mexico, and it has become a symbol of Mexican culture around the world. The holiday honours the memories of loved ones who have died and celebrates the connection between the living and the dead.
Fun fact: In Mexican belief, a person has three deaths. First is when your body ceases to function. The second is when your body is buried, and you are no longer around family and friends. The last kind is when no one remembers you, the definitive death.
Key Elements of the Day of the Dead
On this special occasion, families create ofrendas, altars with offerings to the departed. The ofrendas are a tribute to those who have passed, symbolising the belief in eternal life and the everlasting presence of loved ones who have left this world.
They are placed in homes, public places, and even local cemeteries where family members are buried. They convey the deep affection and fondness held for the departed while also expressing a profound love and appreciation for the gift of life.
In the altars, several key elements are combined to create the vibrant and colourful atmosphere of the Day of the Dead. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some of the most common objects included:
- Skulls (Calavera): These sugar skulls are one of the most well-known emblems of Da de los Muertos. They are typically created with granulated sugar, meringue powder, and water. The mixture is formed into a skull shape and painted with elaborate designs.
- Flowers (Marigolds): The altar is decked with fresh flowers in the hopes that the aroma may comfort and cheer the departed spirits who have returned to Earth.
Marigold flowers (or Cempasuchil) are one of the most popular flowers used in the celebration. Its bright colour, wide petals and scent are believed to help guide the spirits back to the living world.
- Candles: Candles are a sign of hope, faith, and light, and they guide lost souls to the altar and back to the afterlife. In some areas, one candle is lit for each honoured soul. In others, four candles - one for each cardinal point - are put on the altar.
- Perforated paper: Also known as Papel Picado. These colourful tissue papers represent the union between life and death
- Food & drink: Each Mexican state has its own speciality that serves as the primary offering during religious celebrations, such as the Calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin); atole, a drink of water and tequila (as the spirits are typically thirsty when they arrival). However, Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) is a must-have. This delicious and fluffy loaf, shaped like a skull and crossbones, is said to symbolise a grave; and the topped tear drop represents the goddess’s tears.
- Picture & personal items: By placing a photograph of the passed away on the altar, it is said that their spirit would be resurrected and brought back to life. The honoured guest may also be comforted by the inclusion of familiar items such as clothing, gifts, or toys of their own.
Traditional rituals and practices
In addition to altars, ofrendas,, there are several traditional rituals and practices associated with the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Celebrations of life and death are occasions for communities to gather together and remember departed members.
- Cemetery visits: Many people pay their respects to ancestors at cemeteries by cleaning and decorating their graves with flowers and donations.
- Calaveras makeup: Several partygoers will wear calaveras makeup, which makes them seem like skulls. These elaborate patterns are a common way to remember the departed and enjoy the occasion.
- Parades and other processions: During the Day of the Dead festivities, processions and parades are conducted in various areas of Mexico.
How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?
A cemetery visit on the night of the dead in Janitzio.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd each year in Mexico, with preparations typically beginning several weeks in advance. Families will clean and decorate their homes and grave sites, gather materials for altars and ofrendas, and purchase traditional foods and decorations.
Week of the Dead, also known as Semana de los Muertos, is the week following up to the festival and is a time for families to gather together in preparation for the celebrations. Retailers stock their shelves with marigolds, sugar skulls, and pan de muerto in honour of the Day of the Dead.
Families will spend the last days leading up to the Day of the Dead tending to their ofrendas, filling them with the deceased's favourite foods and beverages. The objective is to provide a place of beauty and pleasure for the spirits to enjoy during their visits.
In honour of the family, people and loved ones often make capirotada, a beloved Mexican bread pudding or Bread of the Dead (pan de muerto). Cacao, a hot chocolatey drink that represents love and plenty, also contributed to the festive atmosphere.
During this time, people gather to cook together for feasts, when they share food, tales, and memories of the departed. People also raise a glass to the friends and family who have passed on. In sum, these are all activities to honour the departed ones’ memory and ensure they'll always be a part of our lives.
Celebrations in Different Parts of Mexico
While the Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico, different regions have their own unique traditions and customs that make their celebrations distinct. Here are a few examples:
Oaxaca is one of the most well-known regions in Mexico for its Day of the Dead celebrations. The city is famous for its elaborate ofrendas, colourful cemeteries, and use of intricate paper mache decorations called alebrijes.
Here are some of the unique traditions and practices observed during the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca:
- Larger ofrendas: In Oaxaca, families create large-scale ofrendas in honour of their deceased loved ones. These ofrendas are often adorned with marigold flowers, candles, food, and photographs. They are usually set up in public spaces, such as plazas and museums, and are open for the public to view.
- Glamorous cemeteries: Oaxaca is also known for its colourful cemeteries, which are decorated with flowers and candles during the Day of the Dead. Families gather at the graves of their loved ones to clean them and leave offerings.
- Alebrijes: The use of intricate paper mache decorations called Alebrijes is another unique feature of the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. These fantastical creatures are often brightly coloured and can be seen in various sizes, from small figurines to large sculptures.
Day of the dead’s decorations. Photo by Marc - stock.adobe.com
Imagine a small island located in the middle of a tranquil lake, where the air is filled with the scent of marigolds and the soft glow of flickering candles.
This is Janitzio, a magical place where the Day of the Dead celebrations is truly one-of-a-kind. Here are some of the unique traditions and practices that make the Day of the Dead in Janitzio so special:
- Candle lighting: As the sun sets on October 31st, the people of Janitzio gather at the cemetery to light candles and place them on the graves of their loved ones. As night falls, the cemetery is transformed into a sea of flickering lights, creating a beautiful and peaceful atmosphere.
- Boat processions: One of the most enchanting features of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Janitzio is the candle-lit boat processions. Locals dressed in traditional clothing row boats out to the centre of the lake, where they light candles and say prayers in honour of the dead. As they sing traditional songs, the sound echoes across the water, creating a hauntingly beautiful experience.
Deep in the heart of Mexico City lies Mixquic, a small town with a big reputation for its spectacular Day of the Dead celebrations. It is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a reminder that death is not the end but merely a transition.
The town's rich cultural heritage is on full display during the festivities, and visitors are sure to be swept up in the joyous, vibrant energy of the occasion.
Here are some of the unique traditions and practices that make the Day of the Dead in Mixquic an unforgettable experience:
- Parades: As the sun sets, the streets of Mixquic come alive with parades of revellers dressed in vibrant costumes and painted faces. The parades are a celebration of life, with music, dancing, and joyful exuberance.
- Alfeñiques: A unique feature of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mixquic is the alfeñiques or candy figurines. These intricate sculptures are made of sugar and are moulded into whimsical shapes like skeletons, flowers, and animals. They are a symbol of the sweetness of life, even in the face of death.
El dia de muertos in Mixquic. Photo by Mixquic - Stock.adobe.bom
Michoacán is a state in western Mexico that is renowned for its vibrant Day of the Dead celebrations. Visitors to Michoacán during the Day of the Dead can expect a warm and welcoming atmosphere, filled with colour, music, and tradition.
Let’s discover some of the unique traditions in Michoacán:
- Night of the Dead: On this night, families and friends gather at cemeteries to pay their respects to their departed loved ones. They light candles, sing songs, and share stories, creating a warm and intimate atmosphere that celebrates life and death.
- La Calaca Festival: La Calaca Festival is a popular event in Michoacán, featuring parades, street performances, and colourful costumes. The festival showcases the rich cultural heritage of the region and celebrates the power of the human spirit in the face of death.
- La Danza de los Viejitos: Another unique feature of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Michoacán is La Danza de los Viejitos, a traditional dance performed by men dressed in old-fashioned clothing and masks. The dance is a playful and humorous tribute to the elderly and a reminder of the cycle of life and death.
Participation and Etiquette
As a visitor to Mexico, it is important to be aware of the appropriate behaviour and cultural traditions that are expected during this time. Let’s now discuss some guidelines for respectful and meaningful participation in the Day of the Dead festivities.
Portrait of a young woman in the El Dia de los Muertos. Photo by Ermolaeva Olga - stock.adobe.com
Appropriate behaviour and customs during the festival
- Dress appropriately: While Day of the Dead celebrations is often colourful and festive, it's critical to dress appropriately and respectfully. Avoid wearing costumes or outfits that could be seen as mocking or disrespectful of the traditions and culture surrounding the festival.
- Be respectful: If you visit a cemetery during the Day of the Dead, be respectful of the families and their loved ones who are paying their respects. Avoid taking photos without permission, and be mindful of your behaviour and noise level.
- Participate in the traditions: If you are invited to participate in a family or community ofrendas, follow the customs and traditions of the host. Be respectful of the offerings and the significance behind them.
- Try the food: The Day of the Dead is a time for food, and you'll find plenty of delicious treats and traditional dishes being served during the festival. Don't be afraid to try new foods and ask locals for recommendations!
- Remember the meaning behind the celebration: While the Day of the Dead can be a festive and fun celebration, it's important to remember that it is ultimately a time to honour and remember loved ones who have passed away.
How to respectfully participate as a foreigner
It's important to be mindful of the festival's cultural significance and show respect for the traditions and customs of the locals. Here are some tips to help you respectfully participate in the festivities:
- Learn about the traditions: Take the time to learn about the customs and traditions of the Day of the Dead before participating. This will not only help you understand the significance of the festival but also show locals that you are respectful of their culture.
- Avoid cultural appropriation: The line between appreciation and appropriation is thin on the Day of the Dead, especially the makeup. Try not to make it look scary or offensive. It’s an uplifting celebration.
- Support local businesses and artisans: If you are purchasing souvenirs or participating in activities during the festival, try to support local businesses and artisans. This helps to preserve the traditions and culture of the festival while also contributing to the local economy.
Tips for visitors during the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead is a vibrant and unique festival that attracts visitors from all over the world. If you're planning to join in the festivities, there are some insider tips that can help you make the most of your experience:
- Book your accommodations early, as hotels and hostels fill up quickly during the festival. Consider staying in a neighbourhood close to the centre of the festivities to minimise travel time.
- Learn what Día de los Muertos is about. Remember, it’s not Halloween.
- Consider purchasing items from local artisans or vendors to support the community and get a unique souvenir.
- Bring small offerings or candles to add to the altars if you wish to participate in the tradition.
Misconceptions and Clarifications
Despite its popularity, the Day of the Dead is often surrounded by misconceptions and misunderstandings. Many people who are not familiar with the festival may have preconceived notions about what it entails.
In this section, we will address some common misconceptions about the Day of the Dead and provide clarifications to help you better understand the festival.
Myth: The Day of the Dead is a Mexican version of Halloween
Clarifications: The Day of the Dead is typically mistakenly assumed to be the Mexican version of Halloween, but in reality, they have different origins, beliefs, and practices. While Halloween is a spooky and secular holiday, the Day of the Dead is a festive and spiritual occasion that celebrates the life and honours the dead.
Pumpkin with Catrina skull makeup in the festival. Photo by Atlas - stock.adobe.com
Myth: The Day of the Dead is a sad and sombre occasion
Clarifications: Despite its skull and skeleton motifs, the Day of the Dead is not a mournful or melancholy event. Rather, it is a vibrant and colourful celebration that embraces the cycle of life and death. People sing, dance, eat, and drink to remember their departed loved ones, creating a lively atmosphere reflecting the joy of life.
Myth: The Day of the Dead is a single day
Clarifications: While November 1st and 2nd are the official dates of the Day of the Dead, the holiday is not limited to those two days. In fact, the preparation and celebration can last for weeks as people clean and decorate the graves of their ancestors, create elaborate altars, and hold feasts and parades.
Here is a rough timeline of the event:
- Before October 31st, children's Day of the Dead altars is decorated with Matthiola Incana and white baby's breath to symbolise the purity of their souls.
- At midnight on November 1st, the Dia de los Angelitos (or Day of the Little Angels) begins, in the belief that the spirits of all departed children would return to the living world.
- On November 2nd, Dia de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead) begins. It is when the souls of adults returns and are commemorated.
Myth: It is a Mexican holiday celebrated everywhere in Mexico
Clarifications: While the Day of the Dead is a beloved and widely celebrated holiday throughout Mexico, it is not a homogenous or monolithic event. Each region, town, and family has its own unique traditions and practices that reflect its local history, culture, and beliefs.
For instance, there is a holiday known as Dia de Finados in Brazil. Moreover, in the Philippines, funerals typically include visits to cemeteries by loved ones bearing flowers and candles.
In conclusion, the Day of the Dead in Mexico is a unique and culturally significant festival that holds a special place in the hearts of the Mexican people.
With its rich history and diverse regional variations, the Day of the Dead is a celebration of life that brings people together in celebration of loved ones who have passed away.
So, why not join in the festivities and celebrate the day? You may just discover a newfound appreciation for life and the power of collective memory!