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Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico

Heading to Mexico for Día de Muertos? From October 31 to November 2, the Day of the Dead in Mexico honours the deceased. This is what you should know.

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If you’re planning a trip to Mexico for Day of the Dead, read this guide to find out what the festival is all about. Learn about the history and meaning of the celebration, as well as what to expect during Day of the Dead in Mexico.

What Is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is a Mexican holiday celebrated annually throughout the country from October 31st to November 2nd. The multi-day festival is in commemoration of friends and family members who have passed away.

The belief behind Day of the Dead in Mexico is that spirits of the deceased return to the world of the living for one day each year to be with their families.

The three days of festivities are collectively called “Day of the Dead,” while November 1st is specifically for honouring deceased children as their spirits arrive on October 31st at midnight to spend 24 hours with their family. November 2nd, the official public holiday across Mexico, is when the adult spirits return to their families.

Group of people dressed in costume for Day of the Dead. Skeleton makeup and orange marigolds. Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada
Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada

A Celebration of Life

Day of the Dead in Mexico is more of a celebration of life. This popular holiday in Mexico emphasizes remembering past lives and the continuity of life. It is a very colourful holiday, filled with celebration of life rather than the mourning of death.

Some families will prepare for Day of the Dead festival weeks or months in advance because a main focus of the event is creating altars, known as ofrendas, to welcome the spirits. These altars contain offerings to the deceased and are set up in homes or public spaces or cemeteries. The altars are a way to show love and appreciation for the dead.

Day of the Dead Altars

These altars for Day of the Dead in Mexico are incredibly colourful and contain three main tiers. The top tier is for pictures of the deceased as well as religious statues or symbols, particularly of La Virgen Guadalupe.

The middle tier depends on whether the honoured was a child or an adult. Altars for children will contain toys, while altars for adults will contain tequila, mezcal or atole – all different types of drinks. On the middle tier, there will also be personal belongings and favourite foods of the deceased.

On the lowest tier, there will be lit candles for each dead relative. Some altars will also have a washbasin and towel on this third tier for the spirits of the deceased to refresh themselves.

On top of all that, the altars will also contain calaveras, which are decorated candied skulls. They will also have cempazuchitl (bright orange marigolds) which are referred to as the “Flower of the dead” or flor de muerto.

A Day of the Dead Altar. One skeleton skull wearing a sombrero. Two painted skeleton masks, surrounded by marigolds (Flower of the Dead). Flowers, a silver flask, and a carved wooden religious cross.
Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada
Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada

A Very Brief History of Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead in Mexico began several thousand years ago, long before Spanish colonization. The pre-Hispanic cultures believed the deceased were still members of the community, being kept alive in memory and spirit.

The celebration used to be in the summer, however, with colonization, it was changed to match up with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar.

Closeup of a woman's face covered in Day of the Dead makeup, which looks like a colourful skeleton skull.

Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada
Image courtesy: Intrepid Travel
Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada

Best Places to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico

Many tourists flock to Oaxaca and Pátzcuaro to witness the Day of the Dead festival because celebrations in cities in the south of Mexico have each their own unique rituals. In Aguascalientes, the birthplace of José Guadalupe Posada (creator of La Calavera Catrina), the celebrations last almost a week.

Wherever you are in Mexico, you will be able to experience the city’s own interpretation of Day of the Dead. People in some villages place a trail of flower petals from the cemetery to the home, to help the spirits find their way after first arriving at their grave. There are other villages where people will spend the entire night in the cemetery, bringing food and music with them to celebrate all night long. Some areas have a more solemn celebration, while some families celebrate Day of the Dead privately.

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A woman in Day of the Dead costume with colourful skeleton makeup and a large black hat with orange and pink flowers on top.
Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada
Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada

Can Tourists Celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico?

Dressing up as a skeleton is part of the celebration in many areas, and foreigners are often invited to participate. However, remember that Day of the Dead in Mexico is an important spiritual holiday where family members are visited by the spirits of their relatives. As much as it might sound like a party, everything needs to be done in the utmost respect. Make sure you are welcome to participate before assuming it is okay!

In terms of Day of the Dead costumes, tourists should read up on the origins of the festival, especially the role of colonization in the history of the celebration. If you plan to dress up as a skeleton, make sure to read about the most famous skeleton La Calavera Catrina because Catrina was a satirical portrait about colonization.

A man dressed in Day of the Dead costume, with skeleton makeup on his hands and face, a large sombrero. Blowing out a match after lighting a candle.
Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada
Day of the Dead in Mexico / Skyscanner Canada

Spending Day of the Dead in Mexico as a tourist is a great reminder of the power of staying close to our ancestors and celebrating life. If you’re in Mexico during Day of the Dead, enjoy the opportunity to participate in this powerful festival. If you’re not in Mexico for it, then it’s time to start making plans for next year! 


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