Day of the Dead in Mexico

In Mexico, the celebration of the Day of the Dead has a great tradition. It takes place on November 1 and 2. Most anthropologists and historians agree that this holiday arose as a result of the mixture of the European Catholic tradition and pre-Hispanic customs .

Day of the Dead

Currently, throughout the Mexican territory, more than forty ethnic groups remember the dead on these dates. Each one celebrates this event with a different approach. Therefore, we cannot say that it is a homogeneous national celebration. Rather, the diversity of traditions, rituals, beliefs, and artistic expressions that characterize each area of ​​Mexico has given rise to different manifestations of the same festival .

On the other hand, there are areas of the country where this festivity does not have historical roots. But this has not prevented celebrations with a freer and more modern style.

Origin and history of the Day of the Dead

Before the arrival of the Spanish, different indigenous groups worshiped their deceased ancestors. Despite the differences in their funeral rituals, all ethnic groups shared a common belief: that people continue to live as spiritual beings after the death of the body, and that the living can do something to help them achieve the best possible existence . In fact, this ideology is strikingly similar to the immortal soul doctrine coined by the Catholic Church.

The Mexica people had two celebrations related to death. The first was the Miccailhuitontli or Festival of the Little Deaths . For twenty days, they remembered the deceased children. The festivities began in August, when a large tree was brought from the forest to remove the bark and decorate it with flowers. The rest of the deceased received honor at the Ueymicailhuitl or Great Festival of the Dead . It took place just after the Miccailhuitontli.

On both occasions, the living prepared offerings for their loved ones. They placed elements in them that, in their opinion, would help them access the kingdom of Mictlán. This “region” was considered the prelude to Tlalocan, the Mexica heaven. The offering consisted of money, water, birds, cocoa, seeds, fruits, prepared foods, and lighted candles. Thus, the deceased would be able to satisfy his hunger and thirst for him, make his way in the midst of darkness and pay for his right to cross the river that would take him to his destination.

The Impact of the Occupation on the Day of the Dead

Once the Europeans occupied the territory corresponding to present-day Mexico, the evangelizers, in their eagerness to convert the native population to the Catholic religion, merged local festivals with ecclesiastical ones. According to the Catholic calendar, November 1 and 2 are celebrated on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively.

The inhabitants of New Spain continued with the Mexica custom of remembering children and the elderly deceased on different occasions. The practice of offering food and valuables also remained. What would have to change are the times: now only the first two days of November would be used for these celebrations. Little by little, other European and pre-Hispanic traditions merged with each other. In addition, the creation of cemeteries in the mid-19th century gave rise to the custom of visiting loved ones and decorating their graves with flowers and candles, similar to an altar.

The Garbrancera Skull by José Guadalupe Posada

Some modern elements of this festival can only be understood by knowing the work of José Guadalupe Posada, a caricaturist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His irreverent representations of death in everyday situations, dressed on some occasions as a society lady and on others as a humble peasant, immortalized him as the people’s artist. These engravings have made a deep impression to this day.

His most popular creation was La Calavera Garbancera, renamed La Catrina by the muralist Diego Rivera. In this engraving, death appears with an elegant hat. This image is a critique of poor people of indigenous origin who tried to imitate the lifestyle of the wealthy European class. The impeccable phrase is attributed to him: “Death is democratic, since in the end, white, brown, rich or poor, all people end up being skulls.” Without knowing it, Maestro Posada gave the Day of the Dead the humorous touch that characterizes it today.

On November 7, 2003, Unesco declared the celebration of the Day of the Dead as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity . By obtaining this title, the Mexican government and Unesco made a commitment: to prevent the traditions of this Mexican festivity from being lost as a result of foreign influence and the modernization of society.

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Main customs of the Day of the Dead

day of the dead mexico

The customs, rituals, beliefs and even the days dedicated to the celebration of the Day of the Dead vary from one place to another.

In the State of Mexico, on October 31, the cleaning and decoration of the tombs of infants is carried out and, a day later, the same is done with the mausoleums and tombstones of adults. Regional Mexican music groups liven up the occasion. In Toluca, the capital, huge figures can be seen parading through its main streets . Some works are allusive to the celebration. Such is the case of the catrinas. Others represent characters and characteristic elements of Mexican folklore.

The Tlaxcalan community of San Isidro Buen Suceso draws attention for its week-long festivities. As of October 28, a day is set aside to remember different types of deceased. The first day is dedicated to the memory of those who died in an accident. A cross decorated with a cempasuchil flower and a lighted candle are placed at the site of misfortune . In addition, relatives have an offering in their home with the favorite food and some personal belongings of the deceased.

The next day, babies, born or not, who lost their lives before being baptized are commemorated. Parents usually place white cloud and cempasúchil flowers on their grave, and bread, milk, water and toys on the home altar. October 31 is for those who died before the age of twelve, and November 1, for those over the age of twelve who died naturally. Finally, on November 2, the offerings of the dead are collected and taken to the relatives and baptismal godparents, who receive them in exchange for a gift.

The Offering of the Little Angels

The deceased children also have a special festival in Acaquizapan, Oaxaca. On the first day of November, small baskets are filled with oranges, tangerines, apples, and some typical breads. The basket is covered with a sapodilla leaf. The final touch is a candle with the name of the infant. This arrangement is known as the offering of the little angels.

The community of San Juan Chamula is part of the state of Chiapas. On November 1, the locals place their offering with enough portions for the deceased they hope to receive. Afterwards, they go to the Church of the Patron Saint to “awaken” the souls with the sound of the bells. Finally, they go to the pantheon.

The next day, the inhabitants of this town perform some rituals that, according to them, will help their loved ones to return to the place where they came from. They begin by going around the cemetery three times, while repeating: “your party is over, your celebration is over, I brought you home.” Finally, they place lighted candles and tapers on the graves, arguing that this will light the way for the spirits to return home.

The celebration of the Day of the Dead in Michoacán draws attention for the solemnity that characterizes it. The rituals that, on the occasion of this occasion, are carried out on the island of Janitzio stand out. At midnight on November 1, women and children quietly and respectfully enter the cemetery to place embroidered napkins, food, numerous candles, and floral offerings at the site where their relatives were buried . In this way, they turn the tombs into an altar. They then proceed to pray and sing Purépecha songs composed for the occasion. Meanwhile, the men watch from a distance what is happening in the pantheon.

Halloween, a holiday of foreign origin, has become “Mexicanized” in some places. For example, in Zacatecas it is common to see children from house to house on November 2 at night. Disguised as skulls, the living dead, witches and monsters, they ask for “el muerto” (sweets or money) while singing some rhymes.

Calaveritas: emblem of the party

In Mexico, the term “calaveritas” has literary, artistic and gastronomic connotations. In all three cases it is intrinsically related to the Day of the Dead.

They may be humorous verses that pretend to be epitaphs. But it should be noted that the people to whom the skull is dedicated are still alive. Generally, the objects of such a composition are celebrities and public figures.

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The calaveritas are also engravings and sculptures of a personified human skeleton. They are dressed mainly in colonial-era garments and their expressive face denotes joy. They are inspired, if not copied, by the cartoons of José Guadalupe Posada.

Finally, there is a sweet that receives the same name. It is a figure of a skull made from sugar, amaranth, chocolate or gelatin. It is an inevitable element of the altar of the dead. Its origin dates back to the time when pre-Columbian civilizations placed human skulls on their altars.

In any of its meanings, the calaveritas are tangible proof of the modern spirit of the party . In an effort to accept death as part of life, it is talked about and represented with a certain nonchalance and insolence.

The deep meaning of the altar of the dead

day of the dead altar

An altar or offering for the dead can have many elements, each with a special meaning. Many Mexican families place one in their home shortly before the end of October. In squares, parks and public spaces in various towns and cities, offerings are also installed, some of them splendid.

An altar usually has two or three or seven levels. This structure reminds us of a pyramid. The two-level ones represent the division between heaven and earth. An additional level refers to the underworld or purgatory. The three steps are also related to the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Finally, the seven levels of some altars are a symbol of the stages through which the soul is supposed to pass before reaching its place of eternal rest. They are also related to the seven deadly sins.

The Sugar Skulls

The sweet skulls have the name of the deceased. Some people place skulls with their name or that of an acquaintance who is still alive. This is considered a kind of low-key joke and, at the same time, it is a reminder of the fate that awaits everyone.

The Bread of the Dead

The bread of the dead is usually round or skull shaped. In addition, some bones made with the same dough decorate the bread. When it comes out of the oven, it is sprinkled with sugar. There are various hypotheses regarding the meaning of this bread.

Some historians consider that the Spanish promoted its use and its anthropomorphic appearance as a replacement and representation of the human sacrifices offered by the indigenous people. Others see it as a symbol of the Eucharist introduced by Catholic evangelizers. Finally, some experts consider that its origin dates back to the ceremonies of the first settlers of Mesoamerica, who ate a bread with characteristics similar to the current one as part of a funeral ritual.

Cempasuchil flowers

The use of cempasuchil flowers in offerings is not a recent invention, far from it. These flowers were the quintessential decoration of Mexica altars. Deep yellow in color, they were considered an apt representation of the glow of the sun, a light that guides the deceased on their way “home”.

A portrait of the deceased is placed at the top of the altar. It is based on the belief that the soul of the loved one will visit his altar on the night of November 2. The image is placed in front of a mirror, so that the bereaved are able to see the reflection of the deceased and this, in turn, can see them when he appears invisibly.


According to ancient Catholic tradition, purgatory was an invisible region where the souls of people who had not been good enough to deserve heaven, but had not committed sins serious enough to be sent to hell, were found.

It was, therefore, an intermediate point between both places, and living relatives could help the deceased to access heaven. One way to do it was to place a painting of the Souls in Purgatory. Although the Catholic Church has recently changed its view on purgatory, the custom of placing this image on altars still prevails.

Normally, twelve candles or candles are placed in the offering. The number may be less, but it is customary to place them in pairs. They are used to light the way for the dead on their return journey. It is also customary to place four candles in the shape of a cross, which represent the four cardinal points. It is believed that it helps the deceased to orient himself at the time of his departure.

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The symbology of the Cross on the Day of the Dead

The cross is a purely Catholic element introduced by the colonizers. Originally drawn with ash, it was a reminder to the natives that ‘dust they were, and to dust they would return’. Currently, the cross is placed on one side of the image of the deceased and can be made of ash, salt, earth or lime.

Papel Picado Figurines

The papel picado is a craft made of paper from China with cutouts that give it the shape of skeletons and skulls. Remind participants that the Day of the Dead is a festive occasion. The paper was already used in Aztec altars, although it was made from the bark of a certain tree. In these sheets representations of the deities were drawn.

Water and Food for the Deceased

A glass of water is placed on the altar so that the dead person quenches his thirst when he arrives after a long journey from the spiritual region. Water is also a fitting symbol of purity and the regeneration of life.

The offering includes the foods and drinks that the party enjoyed the most before passing away. Tequila, beer, mezcal and pulque are the main drinks served at the altar.

Economic importance of the Day of the Dead

day of the dead makeup

Many well-known traditions in the center and south of the country are alien to Mexicans who live in the north, where this festivity does not have much roots. More unknown and, therefore, attractive are the customs of these dates for foreigners.

For years, the government and travel agencies saw the different celebrations for the dead as an opportunity to generate income . Realizing the great interest aroused by its history, its folklore, and its festive spirit among the general public, they began to promote those places where the Day of the Dead is celebrated with special fervor as tourist sites.

Currently, there are many communities that become the focus of attention for travelers during these days. In this regard, several localities in the states of Michoacán, México, Oaxaca and Chiapas stand out.

Large events are also held in large cities on the occasion of the Day of the Dead. We have the case of the Festival of Skulls in Aguascalientes , the massive parade of Catrinas in Guadalajara , and the emblematic celebrations of Mixquic and Xochimilco, in Mexico City .

Local businesses also benefit at this time of year. The florists are placed on the outskirts of the pantheons, aware that their sales will increase considerably. Markets and stores sell skulls, candles, confetti, and other items. And the bread of the dead is offered in bakeries throughout the country . Likewise, talented artisans decorate floats and make huge figures of skulls, catrinas and other characters for the parades that take place in various parts of the Mexican Republic.

Day of the Dead curiosities

The Day of the Dead is so closely linked to Mexico that numerous television programs, video games, movies, and novels have decided to portray the country through this celebration.

day of the dead james bond specter


The movie Spectre, from the James Bond franchise, is worth mentioning. During the first eight minutes of the film a great parade is appreciated. To film this scene, 1,500 extras dressed as skulls and catrinas were used. Monumental dancing skeletons were also made. The protagonist appears near the Zócalo, in the center of Mexico City.

Another curious fact related to the Day of the Dead occurred in 2013, when The Walt Disney Company put itself in the eye of the hurricane. The previous year he had announced that a film set on the Mexican holiday was part of his projects. In an effort to protect future sales of his film and its related products, he tried to patent the name “Día de Muertos”, as if it were a brand that they had created.

When this news was made public, a strong controversy was unleashed by users of social networks, especially of Mexican origin. Apparently, this led the company to retract, since it gave up continuing with its request.

Mexican to the core, the Day of the Dead promises to remain an important cultural legacy for generations to come.

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