“The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.” Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz
Just as Mexicans celebrate life with colour and fanfare, so do they honour and commemorate death. Mexico’s Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one of the country’s most popular festivals that is now celebrated around the world.
Mexico is filled with colour and fiestas at the best of times. In the weeks leading up to Día de Muertos, however, the country literally explodes with colour. Bright orange Mexican Marigolds are everywhere along with colourful Catrinas, sugar skulls iced in blues and pinks and yellows, and intricate papel picado (paper cutouts) hang in shop windows and homes.
But despite its growing popularity, this is a festival with deeply rooted traditions that go back to pre-Hispanic times. During this holiday, the popular belief is that the deceased have permission to visit friends and relatives on earth and once again enjoy that which they did in life.
When the Spanish conquistadoras arrived and found people celebrating death, rather than fearing it, they put and end to this pagan ritual. Gradually, however, these traditional beliefs and customs were incorporated into the Catholic calendar. Previously the festival had been celebrated for a month in the summer but it was later moved to the end of October to coincide with the Roman Catholic festival of “Allhallowtide”. Today the festival coincides with All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day.
The festival officially starts at midnight on October 31st, although families are often preparing in the weeks leading up to this, creating ofrendas (altars) in their homes. In most regions, November 1 is to honour children and infants and November 2 is to remember deceased adults. Over the course of the holiday, families will visit cemeteries to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives.
Today, Día de Muertos continues to be celebrated throughout Mexico. Each state has their customs – and the traditions remain particularly authentic in the small towns and villages – but the common theme is one of honour and remembrance for those who have died.
Although customs vary region by region, there are various traditions andy symbols that are commonplace throughout the country.
Altars are assembled at home, in cemeteries and outside, in memory of a relative, or relatives, who have died. Traditionally these are decorated with flowers, photos of the deceased, brightly coloured papel picado (delicate, colourful paper cut outs) and food, you may even spot a bottle of tequlia or two. Much like other ancient civilisations, early Mexicans buried their dead with the deceased’s personal possessions as well as things that might help them in their next life. As such, miniature sculptures of favourite foods or small ceramic sculptures of hobbies that the deceased enjoyed in life might also be placed on the ofrenda.
Possibly the most identifiable symbol of Día de Muertos is the elegantly attired female skeleton with her extravagantly plumed hat. She is known as La Catrina and was ‘born’ in the early 1900s as a cartoon designed to poke fun at Mexico’s wealthy classes. She was later incorporated into a mural by Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s most famous painters, before becoming a figure of Mexican culture representing death.
Known as flores de muertos or Mexican marigolds, these bright orange flowers can be seen for sale everywhere in the run up to the festival. Their colour is thought to represent the colour and light of the Sun and Aztecs believed that the Sun would guide dead souls towards the right path. They are used in abundance in churches, cemeteries and homes. Traditionally, families placed flower petals and candles along the path leading from the cemetery to home so that the departed souls could find their way back to Earth.
Pan de Muertos
Food plays an important part in the festival and families place the ‘bread of the dead’ – a sweet, round bread decorated with bone-shaped dough and sugar with ‘bones’ – on the altar so that the spirits have something to eat after their long journey home. The bread itself is flavoured with orange and anise.
In pre-Hispanic times calaveras (skulls) were often kept as trophies and displayed during rituals to symbolise death and rebirth. Traditionally, sugar skulls – made by carefully pouring sugar solution into moulds before decorating with coloured icing – are also placed on ofrendas. They can sometimes be eaten but their main purpose is to adorn the altars. Today, chocolate skulls are also popular and these can definitely be eaten!
Nowadays, you’ll often see Halloween influences alongside traditional Día de Muertos symbols – a pumpkin here or there or a piñata in the shape of a witch – but this is still a very important holiday for most people in Mexico.
It’s not without sadness, of course, but there is something very moving about the way that life is celebrated in Mexico, with families and friends gathering every year to remember those who have passed.
For many of us in Western cultures, death is seen as a sad event, a loss and a reason for mourning. Death in Mexico is no less sorrowful, of course, but Día de Muertos brings family and friends together on an annual basis to remember the person who has died. I can’t help but think that this regular celebration of a person’s life is a healthy way to approach death.
Last year’s hit movie, The Book of Life, a 3D computer-animated adventure set in Mexico and the fabled underworld, brought this vibrant Mexican festival to life for a younger audience and is a wonderful introduction for kids.
For more ideas on introducing this festival to your family, see our 10 ways to celebrate Mexico’s Day of the Day with Kids (Part 2)
Places to Experience Día de Muertos in Mexico
Every state and region differs in the way that they celebrate. The following are just some of the more famous Day of the Dead destinations in Mexico.
Note that some of these places get very busy so they may not be suitable for younger children.
James Bond witnessed hundreds of catrinas in El Zocalo in the opening scene of Spectre and it looks like visitors will be able to experience this themselves this year. On Saturday October 29th at 2pm, hundreds of participants will gather at the Angel of Independence and make their way to the Centro Historico. Expect enormous puppet skeletons, mask-wearing dancers and elaborately decorated catrinas. The parade is expected to finish around 7pm in the Zocalo, where the enormous offrenda has been created.
Other locations in the capital that are famous for their Day of the Dead celebrations include San Andrés Mixquic and Xochimilco. San Andrés Mixquic, in the south of the city, has strong indigenous roots and every year graves are decorated with thousands of marigolds and hundreds of candles. Xochimilco, again in the south, puts on a special night-time Day of the Dead excursions on a trajinera. Learn the spooky legend of La Llorona as you float along the waterways.
The Island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan, is the location of one of Mexico’s most famous Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The indigenous Purepecha people perform elaborate rituals in the local cemetery throughout the night.
One of Mexico’s pueblos magicos (magical towns), Xico, in the state of Veracruz, is famous for its colourful Day of the Dead celebrations, including an elaborate flower petal carpet along the road leading to the graveyard.
Dia de los Muertos is one of the biggest celebrations of the year in Oaxaca. In addition to elaborate altars, tapetes de arena (sand tapestries) are common – detailed pictures made out of sand in honour of the person who has died. Every year there is a giant tapete de arena outside the Museo del Palacio. One of the main cemeteries to visit is the Panteon General (the Oaxaca General Cemetery), also known as the Panteon San Miguel.
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For more ideas on travelling in Mexico with kids, visit our Family Guide to Mexico