Dia de los Muertos - What is the Day of the Dead celebration?

In Mexico, death is celebrated. Every year, Mexicans honour the dead with a festival known as Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. The Day of the Dead celebration is a joyous time to remember and reunite with loved ones, but how did this holiday begin and where can you join the festivities?

Who celebrates Day of the Dead?

Mexico celebrates Day of the Dead with a two-day holiday between 31 October and 2 November each year.

You can find similar Day of the Dead festivities throughout Latin America, including Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Belize and Guatemala.

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girl with painted skull face day of the dead tradition

What happens on the Day of the Dead?

Mexicans believe that spirits return to the world of the living for one day of the year to be with families. It’s a merry celebration and shows love and respect for those who have passed on.

Revellers wear special makeup and costumes and sing and dance at parades. They cook festive foods and create decorated altars (ofrendas) in their homes to welcome the spirits. They also visit cemeteries to decorate the graves and spend time in the presence of their deceased loved ones.

day of the dead parade with traditional makeup and costumes

Day of the Dead traditions

Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead with different traditions throughout the country. You’ll find more colourful festivities in the southern regions like Oaxaca. Some of the most common Día de los Muertos traditions include sugar skulls and decorated altars.

Why are skulls used in Day of the Dead?

The Día de los Muertos skull is one of the most significant symbols of the festival. You’ll see it in Day of the Dead art including make-up, masks and sugar skulls.

The human skull was an important symbol of life and death for the Aztecs and the Maya and they often depicted skulls and skeletons in paintings and pottery.

Today, it’s a playful symbol for life after death and shows that death is a natural part of life. It lessens the fear of death, as it shows the deceased going about their lives as normal in the afterlife.

day of the dead colourful skulls

What food do you eat on Day of the Dead?

Food is an important part of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. Families place traditional foods on their altars as offerings for the spirits, and they believe that the spirits consume the essence of the food.

Calaveras de Azucar – Sugar skulls

Sugar skulls represent the deceased and families bake sugar skulls with colourful icing, happy smiles, and sparkling ornaments. They write the name of their deceased loved one on the forehead of the sugar skull to honour the return of their spirit.

Pan de Muertos – Day of the Dead Bread

Pan de muerto is a special bread made for the Day of the Dead festival. It is slightly sweet and made with anise or citrus. The bread represents the departed souls and is an essential item on the altar.

Who started Day of the Dead?

Ancient pre-Hispanic civilisations have been celebrating death and the afterlife for at least 3,000 years. The Aztec civilisation began the festival that has since developed into the modern Day of the Dead.

The Spaniards tried to end the festival when they arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, however it continued to thrive. Today, the Day of the Dead combines the ancient pre-Hispanic traditions with elements of Catholicism and coincides with All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day.

UNESCO recognised the festival as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2008.

lady at day of the dead celebration in mexico

Where to travel for the best Day of the Dead celebrations

Oaxaca

Oaxaca is an incredible place to visit year-round but their Day of the Dead celebration is an unforgettable experience. You can explore vibrant marketplaces, observe vigils in cemeteries, see Day of the Dead altars, and take part in nightly carnival processions.

Mexico City

In the capital of Mexico, you can watch a massive Day of the Dead parade filled with painted Catrinas and bright alebrijes (mythical creatures). They dance and sing for nearly five kilometres down the grand Paseo de la Reforma. The parade famously inspired the opening scenes of 007: Spectre, the 2015 James Bond film.

Merida

Merida is a city in Yucatan, where families gather to cook a special Day of the Dead feast. They prepare a seasoned chicken tamale wrapped in banana leaves (pibipollo) and cook it in an underground pit. You can sample this delicious dish and take part in festivities in the streets and cemeteries.

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Have you travelled to Mexico for Day of the Dead celebrations? Share your experience or any essential tips in the comments below.

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