The Day of the Dead in Mexico

In Mexico, the celebration of the Day of the Dead has a great tradition.

It takes place on 1 and 2 November. Most anthropologists and historians agree that this holiday arose as a result of a mixture of European Catholic tradition and pre-Hispanic customs.

[Image: Day of the Dead]

Currently, throughout Mexico, more than forty ethnic groups remember the dead at this time.

Each celebrates this event with a different approach. Therefore, we cannot say that this 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 holiday has no historical roots. But this has not prevented celebrations in a more free and modern style. Origin and history of the Day of the Dead Before the arrival of the Spaniards, different indigenous groups worshipped their deceased ancestors.

Despite differences in their funeral rituals, all ethnicities 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 surprisingly similar to the doctrine of the immortal soul, coined by the Catholic Church.

The Mexican people had two celebrations related to death. The first was the Miccailhuitontli or Feast of the Dead. 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 was done just after the Miccailhuitontli.

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

The Impact of Occupation on the Day of the Dead Once Europeans occupied the territory of Mexico today, evangelizers, in their desire to convert the native population to the Catholic religion, merged local and ecclesiastical festivals. According to the Catholic calendar, 1 and 2 November are celebrated on the Day of All Saints and the Day of the Dead Faithful, respectively. The inhabitants of New Spain continued with the Mexican custom of remembering children and elders who died on different occasions. The practice of offering food and valuables also remained.

What would change are the times: now only the first two days of November would be allocated for these celebrations. Gradually, other European and pre-Hispanic traditions merged with each other. In addition, the creation of cemeteries in the middle of the 19th century gave rise to the custom of visiting loved ones and decorating their graves with flowers and candles, similar to an altar.

La Calavera Garbrancera by José Guadalupe Posada Some modern elements of this festival can only be understood if you know the work of José Guadalupe Posada, cartoonist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His irreverent representations of death in everyday situations, sometimes dressed as a lady of society and, in others, as a humble peasant, immortalized him as the artist of the people. These prints have made a deep impression to this day. His most popular creation was La Calavera Garbancera, renamed by muralist Diego Rivera as La Catrina. In that engraving, death appears in 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 after all, güera, brunette, rich or poor, all people end up being a skull.” Without knowing it, the master Posada gave the Día de Muertos the humorous touch that characterizes it today.

On 7 November 2003, UNESCO declared the celebration of the Day of the Dead as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. With this title, the government of Mexico and Unesco adopted a commitment: to prevent the traditions of this Mexican holiday from being lost as a result of foreign influence and the modernization of society.

Main customs of the Day of the Dead

[Image: dia muertos mexico]

The customs, rituals, beliefs and even the days destined for the celebration of the Day of the Dead vary from place to place. In the State of Mexico, on October 31, the tombs of infants were cleaned and decorated and, a day later, the mausoleums and tombstones of adults were done. Mexican regional music groups liven up the occasion. In Toluca, the capital, you can see huge figures parading through its main streets. Some works are allusive to the celebration. Such is the case with catrines. Others represent characters and elements characteristic of Mexican folklore.

The Tlaxcaltec community of San Isidro Buen Suceso draws attention to its week-long festivities. From October 28, one day departs to remember different types of deceased. The first day goes to the memory of those who died in an accident. An ornate cross with cempasúchil flower and a lit candle are placed on the site of misfortune. In addition, family members have at home an offering containing the deceased’s favorite food and some personal items.

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

The Angelitos Offerings The deceased children also have a special holiday in Acaquizapan, Oaxaca. On the first day of November, small baskets fill oranges, tangerines, apples, and some typical breads. The basket is covered with a leaf of zapote. 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, locals place their offering with enough portions for the deceased they expect to receive. Then they come to the Church of the Patron Saint to “awaken” the souls with the sound of the bells. Finally, they’re headed for the pantheon. The next day, the inhabitants of this locality perform some rituals that, according to them, will help their loved ones return to where they came from. They start circling the cemetery three times, while they repeat: “Your party is over, your celebration is over, I brought you home.” Finally, they place candles and candles on the tombs, arguing that this will illuminate the path of the spirits on their return home. The celebration of the Day of the Dead in Michoacán attracts attention because of the solemnity that characterizes it. Highlights are the rituals that, on the occasion, take place on the island of Janitzio.

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 graves into an altar. Then they proceed to pray and sing composed purépecha songs for the occasion. Meanwhile, men watch at a distance what happens in the pantheon.


Halloween, a holiday of foreign origin, has been “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, undead, witches and monsters, they ask for “the dead” (candy or money) while singing some rhymes.

Calaveritas: emblem of the festival 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. It may be humorous verses that pretend to be epitaphs. But it should be noted that the people who are dedicated to the skulls are still alive. Generally, objects of such a composition are celebrities and public figures. The skulls are also engravings and sculptures of a personified human skeleton. They are dressed mainly in colonial clothes and their expressive face denotes joy. They are inspired, if not copies, by the cartoons of José Guadalupe Posada.

Finally, there is a sweet that gets the same name. It is a figure of a skull made from sugar, amaranth, chocolate or grenetine. It’s an unfailing 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 way, skulls are a tangible proof of the modern spirit of the party. In an effort to accept death as part of life, it is spoken of and depicted with some flouthiness and insolence.


The deep meaning of the altar of the dead

[Image: Day of the Dead Altar]

An altar or offering of 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 of 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 also relate to the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Finally, the seven levels of some altars are a symbol of the stages that the soul must supposedly pass through before reaching its eternal resting place. They also relate to the seven deadly sins. Sugar Skulls 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 discreet joke and, at the same time, 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, bones made from the same dough adorn the bread. When it comes out of the oven, it is sprinkled with sugar. There are various hypotheses concerning the meaning of this bread. Some historians consider that the Spaniards promoted its use and anthropomorphic aspect 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 consumed bread with characteristics similar to today as part of a funeral ritual.


Cempasúchil Flowers The use of cempasúchil flowers in offerings is not a recent invention, much less. These flowers were the decoration par excellence of the Mexican altars. Of intense yellow color, they were considered an adequate representation of the glare of the sun, a light that guides the deceased on their way to “home”. At the top of the altar is placed a portrait of the deceased. It is based on the belief that the soul of the loved one will visit his altar the evening on November 2.

The image is placed in front of a mirror, so that the relatives are able to see the reflection of the deceased and the deceased, in turn, can see them when it appears invisible. Purgatory 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 such grave sins as to be sent to hell. It was, therefore, an intermediate point between the two places, and the relatives alive could help the deceased enter heaven.

One way of doing this was to place a painting of the Animas of Purgatory. Although the Catholic church has recently changed its view on purgatory, the custom of placing this image on the altars still prevails. Normally, twelve candles or candles are placed in the offering. The number may be lower, but it is customary to place them in pairs. They are used to light the path of the dead on their return journey. It is also customary to place four candles in the form 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.

The symbolism of the Cross on the Day of the Dead The Cross is a purely Catholic element introduced by the colonizers. It was originally drawn with ash, and it was a reminder to the Indians 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 from ash, salt, earth or lime. Chopped Paper Figurines Chopped Paper is a craft made of Chinese paper with cuttings 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 on the Aztec altars, although it was made from the bark of a certain tree. In these sheets depictions of the deities were drawn.


Water and Food for the Dead On the altar a glass of water is placed in order for the dead to quench his thirst when he arrives after a long journey from the spiritual region. Water is also an appropriate symbol of purity and regeneration of life. The offering provides the meals and drinks that the festivities enjoyed the most before their death. Tequila, beer, mezcal and pulque are the main drinks served at the altar.

Economic importance of Día de Muertos

[Image: Día de muertos makeup]

Many traditions so well known 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 have seen the dead as an opportunity to generate income in the various celebrations. Realizing the great interest that their history, folklore and festive spirit aroused among the general public, they began to promote as tourist sites those places where the Day of the Dead is celebrated with special fervor. Currently, there are many communities that become the focus of attention for travelers these days.

In this regard, several localities in the states of Michoacán, Mexico, Oaxaca and Chiapas stand out. Major events on the occasion of the Day of the Dead are also held in large cities. We have the case of the Festival de las Calaveras in Aguascalientes, the mass parade of Catrinas in Guadalajara, and the emblematic celebrations of Mixquic and Xochimilco, in Mexico City. Local shops also benefit this time of year. Florists are placed on the outskirts of the pantheon, aware that their sales will increase considerably. Markets and shops sell skulls, candles, chopped paper, and other items. And the bread of the dead is offered in bakeries all over the country. In addition, talented craftsmen decorate allegorical carts and make huge figures of skulls, catrines and other characters for parades that take place in various parts of the Mexican Republic.


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

[Image: Día de muertos james bond spectre]

The film Spectre, from the James Bond franchise, is worth mentioning. During the first eight minutes of the film there is a great parade. To record this scene, 1500 extras dressed in skulls and catrines were used.

Monumental dancing skeletons were also manufactured. 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 related products, he tried to patent the name “Día de Muertos”, as if it were a brand they had created. When this news became public, there was a strong controversy among users of social networks, especially of Mexican origin. Apparently, this led the company to retract, as it refused to continue with its request.

Mexican to the core, Día de Muertos promises to remain an important cultural legacy for generations to come.