Mexico: Day of the Dead
We’re exploring the significance, traditions, and history of Mexico’s Day of The Dead festival. Discover more about this event and understand the importance that it has for Latin American populations around the world.
What does Day of The Dead mean?
Most commonly, the Day of The Dead tradition is associated with its bright, vibrant processions, but it has a rather poignant meaning.
It is a striking annual celebration in which the indigenous people honour their deceased loved ones. There is often food, drink, and elation, all of which honours those who have passed away.
When does Day of The Dead take place?
The belief, which dates back to the Aztecs, is that the gates of heaven open at midnight on the 31st of October allowing the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) to reunite with their families for twenty four hours and then the spirits of the adults come down on the 2nd of November to enjoy the festivities prepared for them.
Where is Day of The Dead celebrated?
Day of the Dead, although known as a Mexican event, is also celebrated throughout many Latin American countries, including Ecuador, Honduras, and Peru to name but a few; as well as amongst the Latino populations in areas including California and Los Angeles. .
Mexico Day of The Dead traditions
The act of celebration involves decorating the altars with candles, buckets of colourful flowers, handmade art, bowls of fruit and traditional foods such as pan de muerto (a large Day of the Dead loaf). Typically sweets and toys are left out for the angelitos while cigarettes and shots of mezcal are left out for the adult spirits.
One key Day of The Dead tradition is to tell stories of the deceased, celebrating their legacies and sharing their loved ones' memories with the younger generations.
While customs tend to differ regionally, there are a few common rituals including:
Ofrendas are individual alters, commemorating a loved one by gathering items that their family associate with them - from small portions of their favourite foods and drinks, to candles, flowers, calaveras (decorated sugar skulls), and toys for children who have passed away.
The Aztecs would adorn the celebration in cempasúchil (marigolds), with their significance being that their vibrancy and scent would help guide the souls that have passed towards the living to begin the celebration. Nowadays, this tradition is carried on by children who will get creative and make their own marigolds using pipe cleaners and tissue paper.
- Sugar skulls/calaveras
These tasty creations are made using compressed sugar and water, and they’re often decorated in bright colours and personalised by the family with the name of their loved one. It’s another opportunity for the families to reflect upon the person that they are celebrating the life of.
There are many regional quirks too, from leaving pillows and mirrors out for the deceased as they pass through their town, to participating in ceremonial dances.
The event climaxes on the final day (02 November) when everyone takes to the cemetery to clean the decorated graves.
Nowadays the Carnivalesque remembrance is far from bizarre and grisly-sounding, but one of the world’s most universally familiar festivals with the iconic, beautifully illustrated skulls and vibrant flower wreath headdresses.
Take a look at our unique Day of The Dead holiday, where you’ll watch and perhaps join in with the eccentric festival. Begin planning the holiday of a lifetime with Journey Latin America; contact us for further information.
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Chris Rendell-Dunn - Travel Consultant
Anglo-Peruvian Chris grew up in Lima and spent much of his adult life in between London and Cusco as a tour leader, before settling permanently in our Sales team.
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Ben fell in love with Latin America on a six month backpacking trip from Colombia to Mexico in 1995. Since then he has explored most of South America, including living in Peru for a year. He is now Manager of the Tailor-made Department.
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Lina's passion for the continent where she was born really took off when she moved to Córdoba to study, spending the holidays travelling between Argentina and her native Colombia.
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Hannah had an early introduction to Latin America when her family moved to Ecuador and she returned to study in Buenos Aires for a year before backpacking across the continent.