To truly appreciate Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), there are a few key insights that will enhance your experience. First and foremost, it’s crucial to understand that Dia de los Muertos is nothing like Halloween.
While Halloween has Celtic roots in warding off spirits, Dia de los Muertos stands as a commemorative event for departed loved ones. However, due to their proximity on the calendar and the shared opportunity for elaborate costumes, these two celebrations have occasionally blended in recent years.
When is Mexico’s Day of the Dead?
Officially, the Day of the Dead falls on November 2. Yet, in certain regions of Mexico, Dia de los Muertos festivities have evolved to encompass October 31 (Halloween) and November 1 (Dia de los Angelitos). In 2023, the Day of the Dead will extend from Tuesday, October 31 to Thursday, November 2, when considering Halloween, or Wednesday, November 1 to Thursday, November 2 without it. The Day of the Dead has earned recognition by UNESCO on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
A Colorful Tapestry of Customs
Day of the Dead traditions span a wide spectrum. It ranges from solemn rituals that pay homage to departed relatives to lively celebrations featuring elaborate costumes and face painting. These traditions may vary significantly across different regions of Mexico, offering a rich tapestry of experiences.
Day of the Dead traditions include building altars, known as “ofrendas,” in homes, cemeteries, and public spaces. These altars guide departed spirits back to the living world. Families decorate ofrendas with candles, photos of loved ones, and their favorite items. Sugar skulls, elegant catrinas (skeletal figures), and joyful calacas and calaveras are iconic symbols. Traditional foods like “Pan de Muerto” and marigolds (cempasúchiles) play a significant role. Delicate “papel picado” flags are also a traditional decoration.
Where to Celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico
As November approaches, Mexican families congregate at local cemeteries to tend to tombstones, remove weeds, and adorn them with flowers and candles. Leading up to the celebration, they offer a vibrant array of sugar skulls, miniature coffins, skeleton puppets, and skeleton masks, known as calacas. The city annually hosts The Calaca Festival, featuring artistic and cultural events suitable for both children and adults.
Oaxaca transforms during Dia de los Muertos with colorful altars, sand tapestry competitions, and elaborate Day of the Dead traditions. The city bursts to life with Pan de Muerto, calaveras, papel picado, cempasuchils, and more. Visitors can witness the magic of this vibrant celebration, but it’s essential to book Oaxaca trips well in advance.
Mexico City hosts various events to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. One of the most traditional experiences can be found in Mixquic. Here, an old cathedral and its surrounding cemetery serve as the heart of this celebration. Spectacular altars and intricate carpets adorn the church’s interior, while outside, a fair offers rides, games, face painting, and captivating performances. Mexico City’s grand Dia de Muertos parade, introduced in 2016, is a must-see spectacle with giant skeleton figures and colorful floats winding through the city.
The birthplace of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the artist behind La Catrina, Aguascalientes hosts a 10-day Festival de las Calaveras. This festival aims to preserve Dia de los Muertos traditions, offering art, performances, music, contests, and a chance to immerse in the rich cultural heritage.
Xcaret Park hosts the Festival de la Vida y la Muerte in honor of Dia de los Muertos. Visitors can engage in music, dance, shopping for Day of the Dead souvenirs, and learn about Mayan burial rituals during this immersive festival.
The city offers a range of Dia de Muertos activities, including altars in Plaza de Armas, dance performances at Parque Hidalgo, and a colorful catrina parade featuring local schools, businesses, and organizations.