The Day of the Dead is perhaps Mexico’s most famous holiday but it can baffle visitors to the country. Here’s our primer on its significance and where to experience it.
Even if you have yet to travel to Mexico, you are likely familiar with sugar skulls and representations of dancing skeletons. You may have been lead to wonder if the country has a deep morbid streak. As anyone who has traveled to the country during the annual Day of the Dead season celebrations can tell you, that is decidedly not the case. Instead what is expressed through all those dancing skeletons and sugar skulls is a unique approach to the topic of death.
As the country’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz explained, where other others may fear death, and even fear speaking of it, Mexicans embrace it. Paz wrote, “The Mexican jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love… He looks at it face to face with impatience, disdain or irony.”
The uniquely Mexican attitude towards death is most obvious during the annual Day of the Dead celebrations—recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO—with good reason, it’s a celebration with a centuries’ old history that combines ancient pre-Columbian traditions with European and Catholic ones.
The actual day falls on November 2, but the preparations for it begin in mid-October, when towns and cities throughout the country become a colorful spectacle with ofrendas (or offerings) erected in homes and cemeteries. You’ll also find the makeshift altars in shops, restaurants, and street corners. The displays include flowers, candles, family photos, and other gifts to welcome spirits back to the world of the living. The most typical flower used for the ofrendas are marigolds, and in October it can feel like every town and city in Mexico has been painted with splashes of the yellow-orange colored petals.
Alongside other offerings, you’ll likely find pan de muerto, a sweet bread often flavored with anise seeds and typically shaped into bones and skulls. Living humans are welcome to eat the pan de muerto too, and you’ll find it on menus at breakfast or as a dessert during this time of the year. In bakeries, it is often sold alongside sugar skulls. Made of hard, molded white sugar, these skulls are typically decorated with shiny paper and details made of colored frosting. An example of the marriage of old and new worlds, the skulls are said to have been introduced to Mexico by Italian missionaries in the 17th century.
Along with ofrendas, strands of cut paper, or papel picado, typically decorate the streets and businesses in the weeks leading up the Day of the Dead (though papel picado decorations aren’t unique to this celebration). Engravings and drawings of La Catrina, an elegant skeleton in Victorian dress, can also be spotted in Mexico at other times of the year, but her presence becomes even more ubiquitous around the Day of the Dead.
Where to Join the Celebration
One element of the Day of the Dead celebrations, visits to cemeteries to clean the gravesites of deceased relatives, is an intimate affair. Unless you are asked along by a Mexican friend, you may not experience that element of the holiday. There are plenty of other ways, however, to join the festivities, from parades to sampling dishes and drinks served around the Day of the Dead.
This town north of Guadalajara was the home of the José Guadalupe Posada, who first drew La Catrina. On the evening of November 1, the popular Parade of Skeletons consists of floats and costumed revelers making their way through the downtown streets.
The students in this university town a few hours north of Mexico City build one of the country’s largest and most famous ofrendas, honoring distinguished intellectuals and academics of the past.
Xochimilco, famous for its network of canals like those that were also found in the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, is colorful any time of the year. In October, however, it bursts into a vibrant orange thanks to the abundance of marigolds decorating the area’s boats and ofrendas. Mexico’s capital also holds one of the country’s largest Day of the Day parades.
A nighttime tour of the cemetery of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán offers a chance to see decorated tombs as well as revelers, some dressed as skeletons, joining in graveside parties.
Many of Day of the Dead traditions date back to pre-Columbian Mexico. In the Yucatan you may dine on holiday items including a tamale-like dish of chicken and pork stew cooked in a banana leaf. The state capital, Merida, also has an especially impressive display of ofrendas on its main square.
To learn more about Mexico’s Day of the Day celebrations, and start planning your visit, go to visitmexico.com/day-of-the-dead.