Día de Muertos: a guide to the Day of the Dead
One transformative benefit of travelling is stepping into another culture, which helps you to see your own life in a different light. A fully-fledged immersion into Mexico’s Día de Muertos can lead you to a broader view of life, love and family.
From the mouth-watering scent of sweetbreads to the colourful sights of Día de Muertos parades, you’ll never forget your visit to Mexico during one of the country’s most beloved holidays. The holiday seems paradoxical. In some ways it’s deeply personal, and yet the festivities often spill out into the streets and public squares as revellers sing and celebrate all hours of the day and night.
Mexico’s Day of the Dead is sometimes confused with Halloween. After all, the two holidays occur at the same time (at the end of October), and the skeleton face painting certainly seems spooky. But make no mistake, Día de Muertos has nothing to do with trick-or-treating or playing pranks on friends.
In this post, we offer a guide to travellers visiting Mexico during Día de Muertos. Prepare for an unforgettable cultural experience and some of the best food you’ve ever tasted.
The meaning behind Día de Muertos
Behind each feast-laden table and flower-filled altar is the belief that the souls of deceased loved ones return from the spirit world for a day each year to be with their families. To welcome them, families prepare their ancestors’ favourite foods, display photographs on altars and lay out their treasured mementoes.
It’s said that the spirits of children and infants (“angelitos”) arrive at midnight on 31 October, and the souls of adults come the next day. Clearly, Día de Muertos is a profoundly personal holiday, a time for reflection and celebration of life’s most treasured relationships. As you visit Mexico during this festive time of year, you may find yourself remembering your own ancestors and gaining a greater appreciation for their roles in your life.
What happens in Mexico during the celebrations?
In preparation for the holiday, families cook their ancestors’ favourite foods, including the pillowy “pan de muertos,” a sweet aromatic bread, often flavoured with orange or lemon and dusted with crystalline sugar. It’s believed that the spirits of the dead consume the essence and aroma of these foods. When the spirits depart, the living members of the family feast on the food and share it with their friends and neighbours.
Historically, family members were buried close to their homes, so there was no need to create home altars or to decorate graves. Now, though, families welcome their ancestors back by decorating their graves, assuming their spirits will arrive at the cemetery first. In some Mexican villages, families lay paths of flower petals from the cemetery to their homes, helping their relatives find their way. Others spend the entire night in the graveyard, having picnic dinners, playing music and talking and drinking until dawn.
Visit a home during Día de Muertos, and you’re likely to see a beautiful marigold-laden altar (“ofrenda”), illuminated by candles and lovingly decorated. Families place framed photographs, candy skulls and treasured heirlooms on the ofrendas as a welcome-home gift to their deceased ancestors.
If you have the opportunity to visit a home during the Day of the Dead, treat the altar with the utmost respect. It’s best not to take photographs without permission.
“Calavera” means skull. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, a “calavera” described a short, humorous poem. Sometimes, these funny literary jabs poked fun at the living, and the tradition continues today. During Día de Muertos, you’ll hear calaveras on TV, in newspapers and read aloud at parties.
People of all ages paint their faces, and dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. If you plan on getting your face painted, bring along an old face cloth for removing the paint later. It can be challenging to scrub off, and you don’t want to ruin your hotel’s nice towels.
Things to consider when planning your trip
Holidays change over time, and this is undoubtedly true for Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Some areas celebrate in vastly different ways than others, with some communities celebrating publicly and others preferring intimate observances at home.
The common thread is an uplifting celebration of life, love and family relationships. As such, expect to hear singing, story-telling and plenty of laughter.
Traditions in different parts of Mexico
Urban Day of the Dead celebrations tend to be louder and less reverent, whereas rural festivities can seem more serious. In Patzcuaro, a charming market village about 225 miles west of Mexico City, indigenous people from the countryside converge on the banks of Patzcuaro Lake. In the misty nighttime waters, they paddle candle-lit canoes to a tiny island for an all-night vigil at an indigenous cemetery.
In the Mexico City suburb of Mixquic, convent bells summon members of the community to the local cemetery. They arrive with flowers and candles and spend the evening cleaning and decorating the graves in a joyous celebration of family.
Locals in Tuxtepec create intricate “rugs” out of brightly coloured sawdust, rice, pine needles, flower petals and other organic material. Normally commonplace streets and city squares transform into incredible works of art during Día de Muertos. The painstakingly created rugs are judged in a citywide contest that leaves visitors marvelling.
And if you can’t get enough of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, head to Aguascalientes, where the festivities stretch to nearly a week during its Festival de Calaveras. Stay through the theatre performances and concerts to the very end, and you can enjoy the grand parade of skulls.
In short, Día de Muertos permeates Mexico over the much anticipated days between 31 October and 2 November each year. Where you visit will depend on what kind of experience you’re seeking.
Where are the best places in Mexico to celebrate?
Down south on the Pacific Ocean coastline, Oaxaca provides a tempting array of Día de Muertos celebrations. During the day, you can shop for souvenirs and traditional foods at the colourful marketplaces. Don’t miss the Friday market in Ocotlan, where you can also admire the artwork of hometown hero Rodolfo Morales.
In the evening, witness the cemetery vigils, and take part in the carnival-like processionals (“comparsas”). You’ll also love the sand tapestry competitions and outdoor altars displayed all around town.
The largest city of the Yucatan peninsula often refers to Day of the Dead in the Mayan way: “Hanal Pixan,” which means, “feast of the souls.” And when they say “feast,” they’re not kidding. Families in Merida gather for specially seasoned chicken tamales that will make your mouth water. These tamales are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground pit, so they’re a rare and much-anticipated treat.
In addition to the incredible food, Merida’s Hanal Pixan festivities include parades in the streets and memorials in the cemeteries.
The legendary Mexico City street parade has only been a tradition since 2016, but it’s already attracting millions of participants each year. And it’s easy to see why. Elegant Catrinas and mythical creatures called “alebrijes” march the three-mile parade course on the grand Paseo de la Reforma. Colourful floats and giant puppets glide by the hustle and bustle, and the joyous, entertaining ambience permeates the city.
Planning your holiday
As you prepare for celebrating Día de Muertos in Mexico, keep the following in mind:
- Get dressed up and take part in the local festivities.
- Pay locals to paint your face for public celebrations and parades.
- Be respectful of local customs, and ask before you take pictures in cemeteries.
- Sample the famous pan de muerto.
- Book flights and hotels early when travelling at the end of October or beginning of November.
- Pack layered clothing; Mexico City’s high altitude means chilly temperatures after the sun goes down.
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