Everything you need to know about the Day of the Dead

BY Anna Walker

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Everything you need to know about the Day of the Dead
Perhaps one of the world's most colourful festivals, Mexico's Day of the Dead is a celebration honouring loved ones who are no longer with us which dates back nearly 3000 years. 

What is the Day of the Dead?

Women participating in the Day of the Dead festival in Oaxaca, Mexico. Image via Kobby Dagan / Shutterstock.com
Celebrated across the world by those of Mexican ancestry, the Day of the Dead is a festival that begins on October 31 and ends on November 2 in which family and friends gather together to honour the memory of deceased loved ones.
The festival doesn't fear the dead but welcomes them. The Day of the Dead is the time when the deceased return to earth to spiritually walk alongside their loved ones. 
Before the Spanish colonisation of Mexico in the 16th century, the festival was held at the beginning of summer. Gradually, however, it has come to be associated with October 31 and the Christian traditions of All Saints’ Eve.
The origins of the festivities have been traced back to month-long Aztec ceremonies that honoured their goddess Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the underworld. Mexicans have been celebrating the Day of the Dead for almost 3000 years.

How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

A traditional ofrenda featuring candles, flowers, sugar skulls and photos of the deceased. Image via Stage Mom
To celebrate the Day of the Dead, people may build private altars known as ofrendas in their homes, local churches, schools or graveyards. These altars house elaborate collections of objects that were important to the deceased person. It is designed to welcome them to the land of the living.
Ofrendas are generally constructed in three tiers. The top layer identifies the person the altar is for, usually through photographs and statues honouring the saints and the Virgin Mary.
The second tier aims to make the deceased feel at home. This could mean including their favourite foods, shots of tequila or for children a particularly beloved toy.
The final tier is filled with candles. It’s not unusual to also include a wash basin, soap and a towel so that the deceased might freshen up upon arrival. The entire altar is peppered with sugar skulls, known as 'calaveras', perhaps the most well-known image of the Day of the Dead.
Watch a British Museum short documentary on the Day of the Dead:
Marigolds, a flower that symbolises death in Aztec culture, also feature prominently in the altars. They are thought to be particularly potent for attracting the souls of the departed.
Despite being centred around death, the mourning is light-hearted and celebratory, with family and friends sharing humorous anecdotes about the deceased.
In some parts of Mexico children dress in costume and knock on stranger’s doors to ask for gifts of sweets or money. This custom is very similar to the trick or treating we’ve come to associate with Halloween.

How is it celebrated outside of Mexico?


A production of Don Juan Tenorio. Image via Ticketea
Many Roman Catholic countries have absorbed traditions of the Day of the Dead into their All Saints Day and All Souls Day celebrations. People often take the day off of work and visit the graves of their loved ones, bringing gifts of sweets and alcohol for adults or toys for children.
In Spain, it is traditional to perform the play Don Juan Tenorio on the day of the festival. It's a romantic interpretation of the Don Juan legend written in 1844.
Some people celebrating Halloween incorporate symbols of the Day of the Dead into their own festivities, particularly the sugar skull.

Latin America

The Day of the Skull La Paz
Feature image via Kobby Dagan / Shutterstock.com
The Day of the Skull is celebrated in Bolivia. Image via Strange Sounds
Citizens of La Paz in Bolivia celebrate Dia de los ñatitas (Day of the Skulls). The real skulls of family members are traditionally kept at home for the third year after their death, where they watch over their relatives.
On November 9, the skull is crowned with fresh flowers and presented with offerings that include cigarettes and cocoa leaves. Often the skulls are also taken to La Paz’s central cemetery where they receive a special blessing in a dedicated mass.
Brazil, Ecuador, Belize and Guatemala also celebrate the Day of the Dead. In Guatemala, revellers build and fly beautiful kites and make flambre, a special salad with cold meats, baby corn, pacaya flower, cheeses and sometimes even Brussel sprouts. The dish is only ever eaten on this day.


Revellers en route to the All Souls Procession, Arizona. Image via CREATISTA / Shutterstock.com
As many USA communities include Mexican residents, it’s not at all uncommon for Day of the Dead celebrations to be held across the United States.
An All Souls Procession has been held in Tucson, Arizona, for example, for over 25 years.
Combining Mexican traditions with those of pagan harvest festivals, people wear masks and carry artwork or signs that honour the dead. Urns are also carried and filled with messages to the deceased, which are then ceremonially burned. 
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