Day of the Dead in Mexico Traditions
In Spanish - Dia de los Muertos!
One of Mexico’s most important religious holidays is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd
One of Mexico’s most important religious holidays is celebrated on All Saint’s Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2): Dia de los Muertos (sometimes called Dia de los Fieles Difuntos) – Day of the Dead in Mexico Traditions.
Traditionally, November 1st honors deceased children and November 2nd honors deceased adults. Day of the Dead is celebrated passionately throughout Mexico, and especially so in smaller provincial towns and cities. November 2nd is an official Public Holiday in Mexico.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween.
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Mexico’s Day of Dead: A celebration of life
Día de los muertos in Mexico: una celebracion de la vida
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a celebration of life and death. Though related, the two annual events differ greatly in traditions and tone. Whereas Halloween is a dark night of terror, Day of the Dead festivities lasts over two days in an explosion of color, life-and joy. Of course, the theme is death, but the idea behind it, is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family and friend members. In towns and cities all over Mexico, people wear funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing, play music and dance, make offerings to lost loved ones. Mexicans visit cemeteries, decorate the graves and spend time there, in the presence of their deceased friends and family members. People in Mexico believe in having a positive pure relationship with death and this holiday helps young kids understand what happens after we die. Day of the Dead in Mexico Traditions
Recognition by UNESCO
In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos in Mexico by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos but the holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.
Quick History facts
Día de los muertos history
Day of the Dead – or Día de los Muertos – originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long circle. The dead were still members of the familly, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.
Day of the Dead in Mexico Traditions
The construction of alters, or ofrenda, is the principle Day of the Dead in Mexico Traditions of this ancient celebration, and perhaps the most serious. For many, building alters to deceased loved ones is the main point of the Day of the Dead celebrations. These aren’t alters for worshipping; instead, they’re supposed to welcome spirits back to the world of the living. As such, they’re filled with gifts—water for thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead person. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the alter. Scattered from alter to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits prayers and purifies the area around the alter.
They are usually layered: the top part contains a photo or pictures of the remembered relative as well as religious statues or symbols, especially that of La Virgen Guadalupe; the second part will contain the ofrendas: toys (for children), and bottles of tequila, mezcal, food. Personal ornaments, and/or the deceased’s favorite food or confection will also be present here, as well as the famous Pan de Muerto. The last part will feature lit candles, and a towel so that the spirits of the relative may refresh themselves upon arrival at the alter.
Calavera means “skull.” But during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, calavera was used to describe short, humorous poems, which were often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs published in newspapers that poked fun at the living. These literary calaveras eventually became a popular part of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Today the practice is alive and well. Every alter will feature calaveras, as well as the bright orange marigolds.
Along with sugar skulls, catrinas are Dia de Muertos’ most iconic symbol. Also known as Mexico’s Grand Dame of Death, the image has become a central representation of the whole Day of the Dead festival. The character on which La Calavera Catrina —“The elegant skull”— is based was conceived by Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada.
The modern version of La Catrina, an upper-class female skeleton, was popularized by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in his etching La Calavera Catrina. Throughout the Dia de Muertos celebrations you will see catrinas (or catrins if they’re male) everywhere.
As one of the most well known symbols of the Dia de los Muertos, this flower is both used as an ofrenda and has it’s own important role.
Marigolds (also known as flor de muerto or cempasúchiles) are everywhere during the festivities, but most commonly found as part of the ofrendas. It’s thought that these beautifully orange flowers will help bring the souls of deceased loved ones back to the land of the living. Aside from representing the fragility of life, they are also thought to represent the sun, and with their brightness & strong scent are believed to help guide the spirits of the departed into the world of the living.
Papel picado is the thin, papery flags you’ll see hung across streets and in many homes. It has become the traditional flag of the Day of the Dead celebrations and will often have related imagery cut into the piece. You’ve probably seen this beautiful Mexican paper craft plenty of times in stateside Mexican restaurants. The literal translation, pierced paper, perfectly describes how it’s made.
Draped around alters and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.
Pan de los muertos
One of the culinary highlights of the season is Pan de Muerto —Bread of the Dead— which is a semi-sweet sugar-dusted bread made from eggs and infused with natural citrus fruit flavors. It’s traditionally taken with hot chocolate that has been mixed with cinnamon and whisked, a pairing that creates a warming blend for enjoyment on a chilly November evening. You can find pan de muerto all over when spending Day of the Dead in Mexico: at local bakeries and cafés, in the markets, being shoved by the fistful into my own mouth, etc. Each is as unique as the person who baked it.
In many major cities, a festival takes place in the most important streets, usually punctuated by a parade with many beautifully decorated floats that are often like floating clouds of flowers with specific themes. In Mexico City, the place to head to is the city center, el Zócalo, by way of the broad Reforma Avenue where you’ll be joined by throngs of revelers in Day of the dead make-up.
As you make your way, you will be greeted by large mystical colorful looking creatures the size of dinosaurs that are called Alebrijes. They’re often a conglomeration of characteristics from a bunch of different animals, like a large lizard with antlers and insect wings. In Mexico, they’re considered the creatures of our dreams and even of the realm of the dead.
Where to go for a memorable Día de los Muertos in Mexico?
Visiting Mexico For Día de Muertos
Day of the Dead is celebrated in different ways in different locations throughout Mexico. Festivities tend to be more colorful in the southern region, particularly in the states of Michoacan, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. In rural areas, celebrations are mostly solemn whereas in bigger cities they are sometimes irreverent. There are a few destinations that are well-known for their Día de los Muertos observances, and there are often special tours and activities that offer glimpses into local practices such as Mexico Underground’s Day of the Dead Tour in Mexico City or Wayak’s Day of the Dead tour. See our list of the best Day of the Dead Destinations for ideas about where to go to have the most memorable experience.
Don´t leave home without watching the movie coco
The Disney Pixar film Coco , Day of the Dead Movie, that came out late 2017 is all about Day of the Dead in Mexico and is a phenomenal movie in general. It won a Golden Globe and a couple of Oscars (ho-hum), features an all-Latinx cast, and is probably the best introduction to Day of the Dead in Mexico you’ll find anywhere.
Learn all you need to know in just an hour and forty-five minutes and all in an easy-to-absorb fashion because it’s a kids movie, amigos. Nothing too complex here. There are songs, adorable sidekicks, and Frida is there–it’s a hoot.
Visit Frida Kahlo House
Also known as La Casa Azul, for the bright indigo blue painted walls, Museo Frida Kahlo is one of the most popular museums in all of Mexico City. Frida Kahlo spent the last years of her life here and eventually died in one of the upper rooms. Admission includes access to the courtyard, a small series of galleries, and a portion of the house which has been preserved from the days when Kahlo was alive. The lines to get in can be ridiculously long – plan accordingly.
A visit to the museum is a must do if you are in Mexico during Dia de Muertos. Marigolds decorate the courtyard and a beautiful ofrenda is set up in Frida’s honor. If you want to take pictures inside the museum, you’ll have to pay extra for a photo pass. Do it – it’s worth it.
Attend the Day of the Dead Parade Mexico City (Virtually for 2020)
2020 Update: In-person parade canceled for 2020. It is being reported that Mexico City will put on a virtual Day of the Dead parade for 2020 that can be watched from anywhere.
Known locally as Desfile de Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City has become a major event.
The parade displays some of the beautiful ancestral traditions of Day of the Dead, complete with large skeleton puppets, moving altars, alebrijes (mythical spirit creatures), marigolds, catrinas, skulls, traditional dancers, and more.
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Book your trip
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Spend the day in Xcaret
Day of the Dead in Xcaret
Year after year, from October 31 to November 2, Xcaret becomes a showcase for the world, of the ancestral traditions of the Day of the Dead in Mexico that are represented in different artistic expressions that make the Festival of Life and Death Traditions of Xcaret, a place to preserve traditions.