There is a lot of confusion surrounding Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos), but also a lot of interest!
While I’m by no means a Dia de Los Muertos expert, I’ve been an excited participant in a few Day of the Dead commemorations here in Mexico, and have done extensive research into the holiday and its background, symbolism, and celebration… along with asking friends a LOT of questions.
Instead of keeping all this knowledge to myself, I’m going to share it with YOU!
FAQs About Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia De Los Muertos) and Their Answers
What is Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) in Mexico?
Day of the Dead is a holiday dedicated to remembering and honoring deceased loved ones. It is a cheerful and colorful holiday usually spent with one’s family, and not the morbid or creepy holiday you might be imagining (it’s not “Mexican Halloween” – there’s no trick or treating). Typical activities include visits to the cemetery to decorate the graves, spending time with lost loved ones, and the creation of colorful altars (“ofrendas“) in the home.
Day of the Dead recognizes death’s place in the natural human experience, rather than seeing it as a morbid or scary end to be ignored or frightened of (such as in American culture). Day of the Dead provides a positive opportunity to remember lost loved ones, as the deceased are believed to share these celebrations with their living loved ones.
This holiday is an important aspect of Mexican culture, and has even been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
When is Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) in Mexico?
Actually, Day of the Dead is DAYS of the Dead. The holiday is typically celebrated between October 31 and November 2, but in many regions of Mexico the preparation starts weeks before, and celebrations and events may continue for days after.
November 1 is Day of the Innocents (remembering deceased children) and November 2 is Day of the Dead (remembering adults).
Where is the BEST place to see Day of the Dead in Mexico?
This is a contentious subject and everyone has their own opinions. Dia de Los Muertos celebrations occur throughout Mexico, in cemeteries and homes.
For a tourist who wants to get involved and experience Day of the Dead themselves: Oaxaca, Janitzio and Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mixquic, and Chiapas have some of the most traditional and anticipated celebrations. The Xcaret theme park in Riviera Maya hosts a yearly festival of Life and Death which, while probably not the most authentic experience, is very accessible for tourists. Aguascalientes and Merida also have festivities around the Day of the Dead dates, though slightly different to the other locations’ celebrations and unique to each place.
I’ve celebrated in Mixquic and Oaxaca, and highly recommend either.
Can I celebrate Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) in Mexico City? Like I saw in the James Bond movie?
Contrary to ideas popularized by the James Bond movie, there is not a large scale, traditional, historic Mexico City Day of the Dead celebration. (But you can still base yourself in Mexico City and experience an “authentic” celebration at Mixquic Day of the Dead, which I explain here).
For the past few years, Mexico City has put on a Day of the Dead parade (in response to visiting tourists asking for one, after the James Bond movie). Typically, the Mexico City Dia de Los Muertos parade is a few days before Day of the Dead. Last year the date bounced between October 28 and 29, so give yourself some wiggle room if you really want to experience it.
The best part of the parade (which I could barely see, even standing atop a huge granite bench) was not the parade itself, but the people walking around in full Catrina makeup and costumes.
Which brings me to my next FAQ…
Who or what is Catrina?
Catrina, now an icon of Mexican Dia de Los Muertos, was originally a zinc etching (called La Calavera Catrina, or the elegant skull/skeleton) created by famous Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada around 1910. The etching depicts a feminine skeleton dressed in a European style.
“La Catrina has become the referential image of Death in Mexico, it is common to see her embodied as part of the celebrations of Day of the Dead throughout the country; she has become a motive for the creation of handcrafts made from clay or other materials, her representations may vary, as well as the hat.” – J.G. Posada
What is the history of Dead of the Dead in Mexico (Dia de Los Muertos)?
Day of the Dead in Mexico is syncretistic, combining pre-Hispanic beliefs (emphasizing maintaining relationships with deceased ancestors) with Spanish Catholic traditions of All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day (praying and giving alms for the people that have died and hopefully entered into heaven).
The holiday, as it exists today, is a mix of Catholic and native Mesoamerican beliefs and customs. The belief that inspires the Day of the Dead tradition is that spirits return to the world of the living to be with their families.
Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) is like Mexican Halloween, right?
No, not really.
While some American Halloween culture is spreading into Mexico (like the lone costumed Grim Reaper above) and vice versa, Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos really only share a few characteristics: the approximate dates, a concept of death, and skulls.
Day of the Dead is more lighthearted, less gruesome, and focuses on deceased loved ones. Dressing up in costume is not an integral part (though it’s become more popular in recent years).
What do people eat for Day of the Dead in Mexico (Dia de Los Muertos)?
Traditional foods are both eaten by living participants and also placed on altars for the visiting spirits who are understood to enjoy the essence of the food.
Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is a traditional offering that you can only really find around Dia de Muertos. This bread is also usually placed on altars. It is a round, sweet bread with a sort of cross on top, and is meant to represent the dead.
Calaveras de Azucar (sugar skulls) are exactly like what they sound. Small, colorful human-shaped skulls made out of sugar. They are said to represent life and death.
Typical Mexican meals like tamales and mole negro are also popular for Day of the Dead, as are the drinks of hot chocolate and atole (sort of reminds me of liquid oatmeal).
How do I make a Day of the Dead altar (ofrenda) at home?
Altars are most commonly decorated with flowers (especially cempasuchil or marigolds), candles, skulls, and photos of loved ones. Traditionally, food and drinks are also placed on the altar, especially any of the deceased loved one’s favorites.
An ofrenda is an altar dedicated to a deceased loved one, not a trendy Halloween decoration. It’s a beautiful tradition and opportunity to take time to honor and remember someone you’ve lost. TripSavvy has made this How-To.