Top 10 things to know about the Day of the Dead

Top 10 things to know about the Day of the Dead

Published October 14, 2022

14 min read

Here’s one thing we know: Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween.

Though related, the two annual events differ greatly in traditions and tone. Day of the Dead celebrates joy and celebrations of life and brings out the worst in people. Halloween celebrates terror and mischief on the final night of October. The theme is death, but the purpose is to show love and respect for the family members who have passed away. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones.

The rituals are rich in symbolic meaning. This feast for the senses will be more enjoyable if you know more about it. Here are 10 essential things you should know about Mexico’s most colorful annual event. (See more stunning photos from Day of the Dead celebrations.)

1. This holiday has been around for thousands of years.

Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. These pre-Hispanic cultures considered death a natural part of life’s long continuum. The community kept the dead alive in spirit and memory. During Dia de los Muertos, the dead temporarily returned to Earth.

Today’s Dia de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2–All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar–around the time of the fall maize harvest.

2. It has been acknowledged by UNESCO.

Cultural heritage is not just monuments and collections of objects. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that cultural heritage also includes living expressions of culture–traditions–passed down from generation to generation.

In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Dia de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Dia de los Muertos, but at its core, the holiday is a reaffirmation of Indigenous life.

3. Altars are an important tradition…

The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These altars are not meant to be used for worship, but rather to welcome the spirits back into the realm of the living. They are filled with offerings, including water to quench your thirst after a long journey, food and a candle for each of your deceased relatives. You might find small toys if one of the spirits are a child.

Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Marigold petals are scattered from the altar to the gravesite to guide wandering souls to their resting place. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.

4. …and so are literary calaveras…

Calavera means “skull.” But during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, calavera was used to describe short, humorous poems, which were often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs published in newspapers that poked fun at the living. These literary calaveras became a part of Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The practice is still alive today. You’ll find these clever, biting poems in print, read aloud, and broadcast on television and radio programs.

5. …especially the Calavera Catrina.

In the early 20th century, Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada created an etching to accompany a literary calavera. Posada dressed up his death personification in fancy French garb, and called it Calavera Garbancera. He intended it to be a social commentary on Mexican society’s imitation of European sophistication. “Todos somos calaveras,” a quote commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath all our manmade trappings, we are all the same.

In 1947 artist Diego Rivera featured Posada’s stylized skeleton in his masterpiece mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Posada’s skeletal bust was dressed in a large feminine hat, and Rivera made his female and named her Catrina, slang for “the rich.” Today, the calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is the Day of the Dead’s most ubiquitous symbol. (Learn more about the dark history of the holiday’s immortal icon.)

6. Families bring food to the grave.

You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living. That’s Mexico’s traditional belief. Some families offer their loved ones the opportunity to place their favorite meal on the altar. Other common offerings:

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. As in the circle of life, the bones could be arranged in a circular arrangement. Tiny teardrops of dough signify sorrow. (Read more about Pan de muerto. )

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. They are made in molds and decorated using crystalline colors.

Drinks to celebrate the holiday include pulque, a sweet fermented beverage made from the agave sap; atole, a thin warm porridge made from corn flour, with unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla added; and hot chocolate.

7. People dress up in costumes.

Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Part of the fun is dressing up as skeletons. People of all ages are able to have their faces painted to look like skulls. They also wear fancy dresses and suits, in imitation of the calavera Catrina. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement–and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.

8. Streets are decorated with papel picada.

You’ve probably seen this beautiful Mexican paper craft plenty of times in Mexican restaurants. It’s literally translated as “pierced paper” and it perfectly describes how it is made. Artists stack colored tissue paper in dozens and then perforate the layers using a hammer or chisel point. Papel picado isn’t used exclusively during Day of the Dead, but it plays an important role in the holiday. Draped around altars and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.

9. Mexico City hosts an iconic parade.

Dia de los Muertos is more popular than ever–in Mexico and, increasingly, abroad. The largest Day of the Dead celebration in New York has been held by Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders, a non-profit cultural organization based in New York. But Mexico is where the authentic celebrations are held. If you find yourself in Mexico City the weekend before Day of the Dead this year, make sure to stop by the grand parade where you can join in on live music, bike rides and other activities in celebration throughout the city.

10. Other communities celebrate in different ways.

Countless communities in Mexico celebrate Day of the Dead, but styles and customs differ by region, depending on the region’s predominant pre-Hispanic culture. Here are a few places that stand out for their colorful and moving celebrations:

Patzcuaro: One of the most moving Day of the Dead celebrations takes place each year in Patzcuaro, a municipality in the state of Michoacan about 225 miles west of Mexico City. People from the countryside gather on the shores Patzcuaro Lake to put out their canoes and light one candle in each bow. Then they paddle over to Janitzio, an island in the state of Michoacan, for an all-night vigil at an indigenous cemetery.

Mixquic: In this Mexico City suburb, bells from the historic Augustinian convent toll and community members bearing candles and flowers process to the local cemetery, where they clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones.

Tuxtepec: This small city in the northeastern part of Oaxaca state is best known for its sawdust rugs. For days, locals painstakingly arrange colored sawdust, flow

er petals, rice, pine needles, and other organic materials in elaborate, ruglike patterns on city streets. Traditionally used for important processions. Tuxtepec’s sawdust rug contest is held during Dia de los Muertos.

Aguascalientes: Located roughly 140 miles north of Guadalajara, Aguascalientes–birthplace of engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada–stretches its Day of the Dead celebrations to nearly a week during its Festival de Calaveras (Festival of Skulls). The festival culminates with a parade of skulls along Avenida Madero.

Learn more about traveling to Mexico, or explore our Day of the Dead page just for kids.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on October 26, 2017. It has been updated.

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