The Day of the Dead, also known as el Día de los Muertos, is perhaps the coolest festival on Earth, celebrated with vibrant skulls. This festival serves as an occasion to honor and remember departed loved ones.
People in Mexico firmly believe that on the Day of the Dead, the departed come back from the underworld to reunite with their loved ones. They are greeted with the utmost joy as they enjoy their favorite things from when they were alive: festivities, food, parties, drinks, and dancing to music together.
The festival traditionally takes place on November 1st and 2nd each year. In 2023, it takes place on Wednesday, November 1st and Thursday, November 2nd.
How Do Mexican People Celebrate the Day of the Dead Traditionally?
When it comes to this festival, what comes to your mind is the warm and touching story of "Coco" ? or the grand and exhilarating procession scenes in "Spectre," the 007 movie?
Even though people in Mexico commemorate their deceased loved ones on this day, it is not a somber occasion. On the contrary, they sing and dance with great joy. They firmly believe that the spirits of the dead are present, joining in the festivities and sharing in the celebration.
Welcoming the Dead as They Return Home
The spirits of the dead are said to go back home on this day to spend the day with their families. So families create altars in their homes or at the gravesites of their loved ones to welcome them back home.
People scatter marigolds in abundance along the path from the cemetery to the town so that the spirits can follow the fragrant trail back to their hometown.
In order to bring joy to the returning spirits, people also set up elaborate and grand altars at home, adorned with photographs of the departed or images of saints, as well as water, fruit, candles, candle holders, and paper cutouts as well as any other things the spirits may need after a long journey of traveling back home.
Celebrating with Colorful Skeletons/Skulls
One interesting thing about the festival is the appearance of skulls. You can see them everywhere during the festival. Local people enjoy dishes that include skull sculptures, wear skull face masks (calavera), paint their faces like skeletons (called calacas), and eat skull-shaped foods.
Unlike the ghoulish skulls and skeletons associated with Halloween, these brightly colored skulls represent departed souls in the circle of life. They also represent death and rebirth.
Mexico City, always a fiery city, begins its own skull festival on the Day of the Dead. First, in the central square of Mexico City, large skull sculptures make their grand appearance. From dusty roadside stalls to upscale and exquisite shops in the city, skull paintings and dolls are abundant: hollow eye sockets, long fluttering eyelashes, a seductively exposed thigh bone beneath a fluffy skirt, teeth protruding and wrapped in vibrant red lips...
Hold Grand Parades to Welcome the Spirits
There are grand parades in major cities in Mexico during the festival. From noon until dusk, everyone in the towns is 'changing faces', effortlessly donning magnificent skull makeup.
The streets are filled with people wearing traditional attire from Yucatan, dressed as vampires, skeletons, or zombie brides to welcome the returning spirits. (Perhaps the person standing next to you could be one of the members from the spirit world who has come to join in the festivities!)
Staying Overnight with the Spirits in Cemeteries
Local people spend the night with the departed spirits in cemeteries. People take coats, blankets, candles, food, and more as they engage in nocturnal conversations with the departed amid a profusion of flowers.
At that time, cemetery hills are lit up to halfway up by flickering candles and almost every gravestone is accompanied by the loved ones of the deceased. They light colorful candles, lay fresh flowers, and place various interesting skull decorations in front of the gravestones.
It seems as if some spirits are dancing around while others are indulging in the offerings of the feast and some are pouring out their hearts to loved ones. Humans and spirits come together in joyous gatherings that last until dawn.
Eating the Food of the Dead
The bread of the dead (pan de muerto) is the must-eat food during the Day of the Dead. This is a type of sweet bread infused with tequila, with anise seeds incorporated into the dough. The surface is generously dusted with powdered sugar, giving it a subtle citrus aroma.
What makes it truly distinctive are the skull-shaped and skeletal hand-shaped decorations on top. The bread is often decorated with bone-shaped dough pieces on top, representing the remains of the deceased.
Sugar skulls are another important food for the festival.
Why Do Mexican People Celebrate the Day of the Dead with Great Joy?
Although the festival is to commemorate the departed, people in Mexico celebrate it with great joy instead of the somber atmosphere of similar festivals in other cultures. This vibrant celebration reflects the Mexican people's unique perspective on life and death.
As portrayed in the movie Coco, in Mexican culture, death is not seen as the end of life but rather as a part of the life cycle. Even when a person passes away, they continue to live on in the collective memory and spirit of the community. It is believed that on the Day of the Dead, the deceased individuals rise from the underworld and reunite with their loved ones in the realm of the living. The living eagerly await their arrival, celebrating with joy, food, parties, drinks, and dancing to their favorite music.
This unique view of death also explains Mexico's fascination with skeleton imagery, where they use skulls and skeletons to represent the deceased. Therefore, just as the jack-o'-lantern is a symbol of Halloween, the female skeleton known as La Catrina (a symbolic figure created by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, representing the Goddess of Death) represents the Day of the Dead.
Why Are Marigolds and Skulls Important on the Day of the Dead?
Marigolds and skulls are two important features of the Day of the Dead, and they are seen everywhere during the festival.
People use marigolds to decorate alters and graves, wear skull masks, paint their faces as a skull, etc. In Mexican culture, marigolds are believed to attract and guide the spirits of the departed to the living world during the Day of the Dead. The bright colors and strong scent of this flower can help a departed one to go back to the real world and find their way back home. So local people use marigolds to decorate altars and graves.
Skulls make abundant appearances during the Day of the Dead. There are sugar skulls, skull masks, skull dolls, skull sculptures, and more. The reason is that, to local people, skulls represent departed souls rather than being a symbol of fear or darkness. The use of skull imagery also shows that the festival is to celebrate time spent with the departed souls.
Day of the Dead Dates in 2023, 2024, 2025...
The Day of the Dead takes place on November 1st and 2nd each year. In 2023, it takes place on Wednesday and Thursday.
The first day, November 1st, is dedicated to honoring deceased children and is often referred to as Día de los Angelitos or 'Day of the Little Angels'. The second day, November 2nd, is focused on honoring deceased adults.
History and Origin of the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead in South America, especially in Mexico, is the result of a cultural hybridization. Even before the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous tribes in Mexico celebrated similar commemorative activities for the deceased.
By the 15th century AD, indigenous people followed a solar calendar that guided agricultural production and designated August as a day of remembrance for the dead. Later, when the Spanish arrived in the Americas, the indigenous Day of the Dead merged with the Catholic All Saints' Day, resulting in the Day of the Dead, celebrated in November.
It is, therefore, a blend of Catholicism and indigenous ancestral beliefs. As depicted in the movie Coco, people in South America firmly believe that the departed come back from the underworld to reunite with their loved ones on the Day of the Dead. They welcome their return with great joy and together enjoy what they loved in life: celebrations, food, partying, drinking, and dancing to music.
Experience Day of the Dead in 2023 in Personal
The Day of the Dead celebration is definitely a unique experience for travelers. During this time, you could see the colorful celebrations and immerse yourself in the fascinating culture. So why don't you go and experience it yourself?
You could visit local markets to see the skulls of various shapes associated with the Day of the Dead, such as sugar skulls, decorations, and traditional clothing. Or you could witness colorful parades, concerts, art exhibitions, and elaborate altars (ofrendas). Dance, drink a shot or two of tequila or Dos Equis beer, and savor a sweet sugar skull to immerse yourself in the festival atmosphere.
Interested? We can help you with a customized trip to Mexico to experience this fascinating festival and explore the unique culture. Let us help you embark on an unforgettable journey to witness and celebrate the Day of the Dead in all its glory.
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