The origins of the festival
In pre-hispanic times families would keep their deceased close by and they would often be buried on the grounds of the family home, allowing their spirits to be part of the living family, though on a different plane. When Catholic traditions surrounding All Souls Day was introduced with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores the traditions overlapped, creating Mexico’s most colourful and renowned festival. The overarching belief behind the festival is that the dead return to spend the day with the living, and far from being a sombre event, most families celebrate the occasion with joy.
Today’s Dia de los Muertos
The celebrations begin at midnight on the 31st October when the spirits of children who have passed away are believed to return, and 24 hours later its the time for deceased adults to return. Families visit the cemetery to decorate the graves of their loved ones and celebrate their lives. At home they create an altar dedicated to those who’ve passed on complete with delicacies, sugar skulls, flowers such as marigolds, candles and photos to welcome the visiting souls. Obviously unless you have Mexican friends you are unlikely to be able to join in with a family’s private celebrations, but as long as you are respectful most cemetery events are open to the public, and some places have plentiful other public events such as processions, vigils or performances of folk music and dances. Both locals and tourists get prepared for the festivities by painting their faces - usually as decorative skulls - and wearing their finery in anticipation of the return of loved ones.
The festivities take different forms throughout the country, so here are our suggestions of where you can find the most vivid and authentic celebrations. The event is such a cultural highlight in Mexico that it does attract a lot of visitors so make plans well in advance.
As well as the usual, historic traditions associated with the Dia de los Muertos, Mexico City has embraced a modern addition to the calendar - the parade. The original version was actually fictional and appeared in the opening shots of the James Bond movie Spectre, and created so much interest and excitement that the city decided to do it for real. The parade takes place along the Paseo de la Reforma and features a mind blowing array of colourful costumes, music, dancing and more skulls and skeletons than you could ever imagine, and it’s growing in popularity year on year.
The capital of the Maya Yucatan region, in Merida the Day of the Dead is known as Hanal Pixan which means ‘Feast for the Soul,’ and in many ways the traditions are similar - graves are decorated with flowers and candles and families set up altars for their lost loved ones in their homes. One local variation is the food prepared for the feast; in Merida families enjoy preparing and sharing a festive dish of chicken tamales. The visiting spirits enjoy the essence of the food, while the living family members eat the rest. Merida is busy with processions and cemetery vigils for the duration of the festival, and the atmosphere is joyful and upbeat.
This cultural hub is a colourful and festive place to enjoy the Day of the Dead celebrations and see local traditions in action. Oaxaca’s celebrations are less structured than in some cities, but there are numerous bright ‘ofrendas’ scattered through town - the altars that are lovingly decorated and prepared with favourite treats for the deceased and adorned with their photos. Oaxaca is a city where you can expect impromptu parades to spring up throughout the festival period in the central areas of the city, and parades are usually heralded by marching bands and costumed dancers.
Not far from Mexico City the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Xochimilco is an enchanting place to get to know, especially if you visit during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations when the markets are overflowing with marigolds and skull-themed trinkets, the lanes have decorative altars set up in honour of those who have passed away, and the photogenic, colourful ‘trajineras’ boats take tourists and locals alike on trips around the canals accompanied by mariachi bands. The cemetery at San Gregorio Atlapulco hosts the traditional graveside vigils, where the mood is more peaceful and the scent of marigolds carries on the breeze.
One of the best known places for a traditional Day of the Dead celebration is the island of Janitzio which sits in Lake Patzcuaro. The indigenous Purepecha people who live on the island are known for their elaborate and beautiful altars which they set up in the cemetery and remain there all night long to enjoy time remembering their loved ones. It is popular with visitors partly because the altars are so photogenic and the candlelit cemetery is so atmospheric, but also because the island location is so romantic, especially with the lights from the fishing boats reflecting across the water in the dark.
The central Mexican town of Aguascalientes is home to one of the liveliest celebrations for Dia de los Muertos anywhere in Mexico. The town authorities have expanded the traditional two day festival into a week long event where the highlight is the Festival of Skulls parade, a huge and colourful event with floats, costumes, many many skulls and a party atmosphere. Other areas come alive with fairgrounds, craft markets, street food, music and dancing. The celebrated Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada came from Aguascalientes and as the creator of the Calavera Catrina, the classic image of the Day of the Dead, you will see this everywhere.
Make it happen
Get to know the culture and traditions of Mexico by experiencing the joyous celebrations of the Day of the Dead throughout the country. Our handpicked local experts can help you plan your perfect trip, combining the festivities with the rest of your Mexican wish list. Get in touch to find out more about how they can make your next holiday truly memorable. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.