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Day of the Dead – How to Celebrate Dia de Muertos

Day of the Dead – How to Celebrate Dia de Muertos

Photo: Dina Julayeva / Shutterstock.com

Day of the Dead, also known as Dia de Muertos in Spanish is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. It’s originally a Mexican holiday which lasts for 3 days from 31 October to 2 November.

In recent years the Day of the Dead has gained more popularity in other countries as well, especially in the United States, which has a significant number of Mexicans living in the country. It’s also widely celebrated in Latin America. 

What is the Day of the Dead?

The Day of the Dead is an ancient celebration in Mexico where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives. It’s believed that they can pass over from the world of the dead into the world of the living on this day.

The celebration goes on for 3 days in total with decorated altars, parades, food, and public gatherings. It’s a celebration of life and a time to remember and honor the dead.

Dia de Muertos celebration

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What happens on the Day of the Dead?

Dia de los Angelitos

This marks the beginning of the Day of the Dead celebrations, usually before midnight on 1 November. The first day is dedicated to deceased children, and it is believed that their souls can rejoin their families for 24 hours. 

The family of the children will make an altar where they put photographs of the child as well as their favorite snacks, candy, and toys.

Día de los Difuntos

On the following night, the celebrations shifts from children to deceased adults. The ofrendas of the adults usually features tequila, pan de Muerto, atole and personal items as well as photographs.

This night is often a family-celebration filled with lots of joy and stories about the loved ones who’ve passed away. 

Dia de Muertos

The last day (2 November) features the biggest celebrations in Mexico and worldwide with parades and public celebrations. Dia de Muertos is the grand finale where people gather in the streets to celebrate and honor the dead. 

On this day, it’s also common to visit cemeteries which have been decorated as well. 

day of the dead in Mexico

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Where to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico

Oaxaca is one of the best places in Mexico to experience the Day of the Dead as a foreigner. Mexico City has become famous for its Day of the Dead parade, even though it’s a new innovation it has millions of people attending in recent years.

In Merida and the Yucatan Peninsula, the Day of the Dead celebrations are known as Hanal Pixan, which is a Mayan tradition meaning “Feast for the souls”. In Aguascalientes, you can see the annual Festival de las Calaveras, which is a grand parade that celebrates Dia de Muertos. 

San Miguel de Allende is one of the best small towns to celebrate dia de muertos as a foreigner. The festival here is known as La Calaca and consists of a four-day festival where ancient traditions and celebrations are being preserved and observed. 

Where to celebrate the day of the day

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Best Places to celebrate Dia de Muertos in Mexico

  • San Miguel de Allende
  • Mexico City (San Andres Mixquic and Xochimilco’s canals)
  • Island of Janitzio
  • Merida
  • Morelia
  • Oaxaca
  • Ocotepec
  • Aguascalientes
Dia de Muertos

Photo: Moab Republic/Shutterstock

Day of the Dead celebrations in the United States

  • Fort Lauderdale
  • Los Angeles
  • San Antonio 
  • San Francisco
  • Tucson

Dia de Muertos in other countries

  • Santiago Sacatepequez, Guatemala
  • Quito, Ecuador (Day of the Ancestors)

The Origins of Dia de Muertos

There is no exact date when Dia de Muertos was first celebrated, but the tradition is believed to have originated from the Aztec and Toltec people who saw mourning the dead as disrespectful.

Death was seen as just another part of the cycle of life, and the dead were believed to still be a part of their community. On the Day of the Dead, it was believed that they could once again return to the world of the living.

Day of the Dead origins

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Movies about the Day of the Dead

In addition to the three listed movies about Dia de Muertos, the Mexican holiday is also featured in movies such as the Spectre (Bond), and Once Upon A Time In México.

My favorite among these Day of the Dead movies is “Coco” which is a heartwarming story for the whole family, and not only children, although it’s an animated movie. 

  • Coco 
  • The Book of Life
  • Corpse Bride

More information about Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, better known as Dia de Muertos in Mexico is a 3-day celebration in Mexico with ancient origins dating back more than 2000 years. In 2008 it was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

The Day of the Dead is a joyful celebration in honor of the departed souls where it’s believed that the dead can come back for 24 hours to join their relatives in the world of the living.

There are some regional differences since Mexico isn’t a homogenous country, but most celebrations will include an ofrenda (altar), Calaveras (skulls), and Calacas (skeletons). Families will often reminisce about the lives of the departed souls, and it’s a time of laughter and good old memories, rather than mourning.

The Dia de Muertos celebration often includes a visit to the cemeteries, and the gravestones will be decorated as well. On the last day, the whole town or city will gather in public to celebrate together by dancing and playing music. 

Day of the Dead vs Halloween

In the United States and other parts of the world, these two holidays are often mixed up. But the fact is that they don’t really have much in common at all, other than that they occur around the same date.

Halloween has a focus on darkness and warding off evil spirits and originally comes from pagan celebration among Celtic Tribes, whereas the Day of the Dead is honoring their dead relatives and rejoins with their souls on a joyous occasion.

Celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico

Photo: Dina Julayeva/Shutterstock

Meaning of the sugar skulls

The Sugar skull, also known as Calavera represents the departed soul. They are placed on the ofrenda or gravestone to honor their return to the world of the living. 

How to dress for day of the dead

Dia de Muertos is not about looking scary or sexy, so if you want to dress properly to join the day of the dead celebrations in Mexico, you should wear something with cheerful colors.

If you’re a woman go for a dress that is long and flowy with vibrant colors or floral patterns. A traditional Mexican style dress, such as a Puebla dress is a great choice.

If you’re a man and want to dress for day of the dead, you can wear a shirt and long pants or a suit (even better if it has skeleton print). A hat and tie are commonly worn as well in addition to skeleton gloves.

day of the dead face paint

Photo: marketa1982 / Shutterstock.com

Day of the Dead face paint

If you’re visiting Mexico or a city with many Mexicans, there will be plenty of stalls offering to do the classic Day of the dead face paint that turns you into a skeleton. This is what I would recommend in order to keep it authentic and respectful. 

5 x Day of the Dead facts

  • Dia de Muertos is not the Mexican version of Halloween and there is no connection between the two
  • Mexican families place Ofrendas to honor their deceased relatives
  • The orange flower known as the Mexican Marigold is an important symbol and decoration
  • It is customary to visit cemeteries during the Day of the Dead celebration
  • There are regional differences in Mexico with unique traditions
Day of the Dead facts

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Frequently asked questions

What is an ofrenda? 

The ofrenda is the altar and offerings dedicated to the departed souls. Every ofrenda include four elements: water, wind, earth, and fire. The families will also place objects and foods that the deceased person loved when they lived.

Who is La Calavera Catrina?

La Catrina was a satirical portrait by Jose Guadalupe Posada which depicts a female skeleton wearing only a hat. He called it Calavera Garbancera, and it was a commentary on the European sophistication in Mexico.

“Todos somos calaveras” is a famous quote by Posada, meaning “we are all skeletons”. 

Since then, La Calavera Catrina has become the symbol of death in Mexico and an icon of the Dia de Muertos. The local artist Diego Rivera completed his famous mural “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” in 1947, which depicted La Catrina Calavera with a body wearing an elegant outfit. 

La Calavera Catrina

Do you say Happy Day of Dead?

There is no proper greeting for this holiday and you wouldn’t say “happy day of the dead” to the living because the celebration is all about the dead. Some families will put up signs in their homes saying “Bienvenido a Casa” which means welcome home. 

What does the skull mean in Day of the Dead?

The sugar skull, also known as the Calavera is representing a departed soul. They often have the written name of the deceased person on the forehead, and families will place them on the home ofrenda or gravestone.

Calavera

Photo: Suriel Ramzal/Shutterstock

What do they eat on the Day of the Dead?

Sopa Azteca, Chalupas, Tamales, and Red Pozole are some of the Mexican food which are commonly eaten on the Day of the Dead. The families will also prepare the favorite foods of the departed souls and place them on the ofrenda.

Pan de Muerto is of course also prepared and eaten, literally meaning “bread of the dead”. 

Pan de Muertos

Photo: AGCuesta/Shutterstock


Will you be celebrating the Day of the Dead in 2019? Leave a comment below!

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