What you need to know: Mexico's Day of the Dead

Once a year, on November 1st and 2nd, the people of Mexico recall their dead relations in a meaningful, festive ceremony. Here's a closer look at what's known as the Day of the Dead
 A person with a costume on a cemetery in the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico
A person with a costume on a cemetery in the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Shutterstock

A person with a costume on a cemetery in the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Shutterstock

Of the many religious festivals celebrated throughout the year in Mexico, the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is probably the most fascinating to any outsider, and the one that is truest to the country’s mestizo spirit. Here's what you need to know and how to see it for yourself

The original celebration can be traced to pre-Hispanic rituals dedicated to Mictlantecuhtli, the Mexican lord of the underworld, and Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec war deity to whom so many were sacrificed. After the Conquest, in an attempt to turn the fiesta into a Christian celebration, Spanish priests moved the date to coincide with that of All Souls’ Day. Far from a macabre, grisly dwelling on darkness and death, Day of the Dead has become a fiesta that celebrates life as much as death; a fun-filled family affair where young and old pay colorful tribute to the spirits that surround them. 

Nowadays the fiesta blends both pre-Hispanic and Christian rituals. Celebrations vary from state to state but is generally a warm tradition that brings families together and is anything but somber. The most famous are the Purépecha traditions in Michoacán, where all-night vigils are held in the cemeteries, and candlelit boat processions across the lake to the tiny island of Janitzio attract visitors from all over the world. Both Oaxaca and Mexico City have vibrant celebrations including street parties and parades, if you're looking for something livelier (excuse the pun). Travel on Insight Guides' Mexico City to the Yucatán holiday to experience the capital city's fiesta spirit for yourself this November.

A common sight throughout the event are graves and cemeteries adorned with bright decorations. Families and friends will spend time cleaning and renewing their loved one's graves for the year ahead. The orange cempasuchil flower, similar to the marigold, is known in Mexico as the 'flower of death' and figures prominently throughout the day's festivities.

Day of the Dead in Mexico.

Graveyards and cemetaries are cleaned and decorated throughout the two-day event.

Little angels returning home

It is believed that the souls of children who have died (called angelitos, or 'little angels') return to their earthly home on November 1st, while those of adults arrive the following day. A candle is lit for each returning soul and beautiful ofrendas, or shrines, are made in homes all over the country.

Photos of the loved ones are placed around the table along with a variety of their favourite foods or antojitos, the traditional pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and a glass of tequila or a mug of atole (cornmeal drink). The shrine is decorated with ornately cut tissue paper and the same orange cempasuchil flowers mentioned above. Little chocolate or sugar skulls, and other decorations, are placed around the ofrenda and a type of incense called copal is burned. Sometimes a path of orange petals is strewn from the street to the shrine to help the souls find their way home, in this intimate tribute to lost loved ones. 

It's important to note that Mexicans dread death but also laugh at it. The day's rituals are neither morbid nor mocking, but an effort to laugh at the tragically inevitable. 

Ready to take a trip to experience the Day of the Dead?

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