Day of the Dead: A Mexican celebration of remembrance

Mexico has one of the most fascinating cultures in America, traditions that have their origins in the ancient indigenous peoples and have been preserved after colonization, such as the Day of the Dead.

A tradition in which people honor their loved ones and which has been declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2008.

If you want to know more about this tradition, its origin, what it consists of, what the altars look like and what decorative elements are used, then continue reading.

Day of the Dead in Mexico: What is the Day of the Dead?

One of the manifestations that highlights the Mexican culture is the Day of the Dead, a day in which people pay tribute to their loved ones who are no longer alive.

This celebration has been practiced for thousands of years in a traditional way every year.

day of the dead mexico

In Mexican culture it is believed that the dead visit the world of the living on the Day of the Dead, to share once again with their loved ones.

On this day there is no pain or crying, on the contrary, it is a celebration, where laughter, music, happiness, harmony, food and drink abound, as this is the way they expect to receive their deceased.

Origin of the Day of the Dead in Mexico

Most of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica paid tribute to death for more than 3000 years, each one in a particular way.

But they had something in common when making their offerings, that the souls of their loved ones would arrive in a good way to paradise.

Some made ceremonies in honor of the goddess of death in the ninth solar month, which coincided with the corn harvest, because then came the winter and with it a dead time in which it could not be cultivated.

In the ceremonies it was common to put colorful cloths, skulls, water, corn and other foods.

The Nahua celebrated the Day of the Dead twice, once in August in honor of the muertitos (little dead) and once in October in honor of the muertos grandes (big dead).

Therefore, it can be said that there are different origins, but they are related to each other and they are not different from the beliefs brought to the continent by the Spanish missions.

Religious syncretism with All Saints’ Day

With the arrival of the colonists and the missions of the Catholic Church, they brought with them all the customs practiced by the church in Europe.

And one way in which the friars managed to attract believers was through syncretism, making the people of Mesoamerica celebrate the Day of the Dead on the same day they celebrated All Saints’ Day.

Thus the Day of the Dead celebrated by the peoples of Mexico began to be celebrated on November 1 and 2, although it is common for the festivity to begin on the night of October 31, in some cities it begins on October 28.

Although the theory of syncretism is the most accurate and accepted by the world, some indicate that the celebration is Catholic, only with indigenous adaptations.

Importance of the Day of the Dead Mexico

Preserving traditions is fundamental for any people or culture, since this allows the following generations to learn about their origins and the activities that their ancestors carried out.

One way in which Mexicans and people from all over the world can learn and get to know this culture is through cultural manifestations, such as the Day of the Dead.

It is not only about dressing up or doing some of the typical Day of the Dead face point to look like a Catrina, but also about learning what is behind the festivity and what is the reason for it.

day of the dead mexico celebration

Day of the Dead allows people to share and unite with others, regardless of whether they are acquaintances or strangers.

In addition, it is a very attractive tradition that invites hundreds of people to visit Mexico during these days.

So well known is this day that it even has animated movies dedicated to the Mexican holiday, such as Pixar’s animated movie Coco.

A Mexican tradition

The Day of the Dead is celebrated differently in all regions of the country, even families have their own customs to make their altars.

However, they have the same purpose: to make an altar with which they can guide the path of the souls of their loved ones to their homes.

day of the dead altar
At Makpalli, we did our own Day of the Dead altar.

The way people celebrate the Day of the Dead Mexico has to do with the geographical area where their ancestors come from or the place where they live, and of course the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another.

The altar and its elements

On the Day of the Dead in Mexico, an essential part of the celebration is the Day of the Dead altar, where all the offerings to the deceased will be placed so that he/she can get home to be reunited with his/her loved ones.

day of the dead decorations

The altars can be built in the cemetery, on the grave of the deceased or in the house, the latter will depend on the custom of the family as well as the way in which the altar is decorated.

However, there are some elements that are key when it comes to making a good altar, such as:

The arch

The arch is a kind of portal that unites the world of the living with the world of the dead.

It is recommended that the altar has an arch so that the deceased can pass from one world to another, they are usually made of wood and decorated with flowers.


The road to the world of the living is long and tiring, therefore the altars usually have jars or glasses with fresh water for the deceased to drink.

Water represents purity and is an important element for life, not only for humans, but also for the earth.

Depending on the deceased, whether he/she was a child or an adult, drinks such as tequila, atole or mezcal may or may not be placed on the altar.

Candles or lights

Large candles should be added to keep the altar illuminated day and night and light the way for the deceased.

They also represent fire, so they cannot be missing in the altar. Artificial lights are not traditional, but they also work well as decoration.

Papel picado (shredded paper)

Papel picado is a decorative element that is used in most altars, they are decorations that are made with paper from China, in which geometric figures, skulls and skeletons are cut.

It represents the wind, since it is the only object on the altar that moves with this element.

Mexican sugar skulls

Although it has its origin in Europe, Mexican sugar skulls are very common in the celebration of the Day of the Dead Mexico, they are used to decorate and to eat. However, the real purpose of these Day of the Dead skulls is to remember us that death is always present.

mexican sugar skull

Fruits and Food

Fruits and foods are of utmost importance on the Day of the Dead Mexico, in this one they usually put the favorite dishes of the deceased, but also some traditional dishes such as:

  • Pan de muerto
  • Calabaza en tacha
  • Corn-based products

And not only food is placed for the dead, since on this day people usually come to visit the altar and the custom indicates that food and drink should be provided, since it can be the dead person disguised as a human.

Fruits of all kinds are also added, which serve to decorate and feed the living and the dead.

Flowers and cempasúchil (Mexican marigold)

Flowers are a common element in all altars and in particular, cempasúchil, also known as Mexican marigolds or Aztec marigolds.

cempasuchil day of the dead decorations mexican marigold

The latter are orange flowers with 20 petals, which the Indigenous people of Mexico compared to the sun and used to decorate their dead. It is one of the common Day of the Dead decorations.

Copal incense

It is a natural pre-Hispanic incense that was used as medicine for the body and spirit, that is why it is a common element in altars.

Photograph of the loved one

Finally, a photograph of the person to remember is a must so that the he/she knows that the altar is dedicated to him/her.

The photograph is placed on its back with a mirror so that people can see it.

How it is celebrated in Oaxaca

The Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is not only celebrated on November 1 and 2, in this state there are cultural activities that last at least five days.

They also make comparsas, where people dress up as Catrinas, dead or dressed in traditional clothes to dance and have fun to the rhythm of the music.

If you want to get to know Oaxaca, one thing you must do is visit the cemeteries during the night. No, there is nothing to be afraid of, since from October 31 they are decorated with the typical Day of the Dead decorations, such as flowers, candles, lights, people sharing food and drinks, accompanied by bands and even stages with live music that give more life to the celebration of the Day of the Dead Mexico.

How it is celebrated in Michoacán

In each region of Mexico they celebrate the Day of the Dead with its own particularities, in Michoacan they have some customs that are different from the rest of the country.

One of them is the sacred duck hunting that takes place on October 31, a duck that is raised in Lake Patzcuaro.

Another place worth visiting is the island of Janitzio, where people decorate their houses with altars and on November 1st they decorate each of the tombs in the cemetery, drink and eat while waiting for the souls of their loved ones.

day of the dead michoacan janitzio

Morelia is very crowded, the plazas, public places and the church are filled with people, altars, decorations and typical food stands.

At night the cemeteries are filled with music, lights and many people, as if it were a fair, an activity that is definitely worth knowing and enjoying.

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