Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival is one of the most important cultural events in the Mexican calendar. The day might sound a little morbid but it’s actually a very beautiful and complicated event.
If you live in Mexico, 1-2 November is all about honoring the dead with food, flowers, candles, parades, decorative masks, sugar skulls and dancing skeletons. It’s also a time for reflection for those for those who have recently lost a loved one, or a time of demonstration for groups with a political agenda raising awareness about tragic events.
What is Day of the Dead?
The event began long before Spanish colonisation when a month was dedicated to commemorating the spirits of the dead. After the emergence of Christianity, Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos) celebrations were moved from July/August to coincide with the Catholic feast days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day in November. Each year, Mexican graveyards and personal home alters are decorated to the nines with gifts, food and drinks (including the much-loved tequila!) to entice spirits of the dead back to earth.
How is Day of the Dead Celebrated?
Throughout most of Mexico, Day of the Dead festivities are spread out over two days – the Dia de los Angelitos on 1 November dedicated to souls of children who have passed away, and Dia de Los Muertos on 2 November dedicated to spirits of the adult dead. Main celebrations, parades, communion meals and colourful events will typically occur on the latter day of the festival, of which a large portion is held in local cemeteries.
While these dates mark the colourful climax of events, preparations for this optimistic spirit celebration do in fact begin weeks in advance. Expect to see shops filled with everything from decorative paper skulls to colourful lanterns, plastic skeletons, costumes and death-themed candy bags.
Come November, every house and cemetery will become a veritable shop window display! As mentioned above, the primary tradition here involves constructing private and incredibly decorative altars, called ofrendas in memory of the deceased.
These ‘ofrendas’ are typically adorned with everything from marigolds to candles, incense, sweet sugar skulls and bottles of tequila.
Day of the Dead festivities take place in cities and villages throughout Mexico, with unique customs, traditions, displays or parades. Take a look at our pick of the biggest and best Day of the Dead events in Mexico…
Day of the Dead in Mexico City should be in everyone’s bucket list. There are hundreds of public ofrendas. Start by checking out Zócalo in the centre of town. The Dolores Olmedo Museum also has a particularly lovely display and the theme changes every year. But for something a bit special, head to the cemetery at San Gregorio Atlapulco in Xochimilco on the edge of the city. By midnight, the place is heaving with mariachi bands and families laden with decorations to lay on the tombstones.
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Located in the Tlahuac Delegation of Mexico City, Mixquic combines the ambience of a rural village with strong indigenous heritage. Check out the famous Day of the Dead street procession, which will see a cardboard coffin being transported across the city to the local cemetery for a candle-lit vigil.
Food, sun, parade, party. Repeat if necessary. Naturally, Mexico’s party capital puts a unique twist on Day of the Dead celebrations. You simply cannot miss a trip to the one-of-a-kind Xcaret Bridge to Paradise Cemetery. This unique structure is based on the Gregorian calendar, complete with 365 individual gravesites, each one created by a different artist in a distinctly Mexican style! While one may look like a bed complete with blanket and pillows, the next is a tiny replica of a magnificent cathedral. From 30th October to 2nd November, Xcaret will be lit up by a mosaic of colours, as traditional altars, historical and literary gatherings, community theatre performances, dances, craft shows, concerts and visual art exhibitions all form part of the Day of the Dead celebrations.
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Any food lovers out there? You can’t beat a Day of the Dead stopover in Merida, along Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula! Here, in celebration of the souls, families will gather to prepare a special seasoned chicken tamale wrapped in banana leaves. Head to one of the multiple street stalls to sample this delicious dish!
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A small island in Patzcuaro Lake, Janitzio is easily reached by boat from Patzcuaro. Here, local Purepecha groups host elaborate Day of the Dead rituals complete with folk dancing, processions and night chanting in local cemeteries. Check out an impressive sight on the 1st of November, as torches of multiple fishermen in their rowboats light up the lake in a ghostly formation.
We’re just going to put it out there – Oaxaca has got to be one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead across the globe! For those lucky enough to score a deal, check out the range of local cemeteries, Friday markets and sand tapestry competitions dotting city streets. In particular, make sure you pay a night-time visit to the cemeteries of Xoxocotlan to see a magical display of candles, marigolds and cockscomb flowers. A Xoxocotlan Cemetery Tour departing takes place every year in the evening of 31 October.
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Thanks to bradcerenzia, christine zenino, (3), a2gemma, -Chupacabras-, Loelle, Marysol, and christine zenino for the images from Flickr. Please note, at time of publication all images were suitable for use according to the Creative Commons license.