Day of the Dead: celebrate Día de Muertos

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 13.12.2023

Centred on rituals and festivities that honour and commemorate those who have died, Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) derives from indigenous traditions that are unique to the country. To help you celebrate Día de Muertos, here we reveal the whys, whats, wheres and hows of Mexico’s Day of the Dead rituals and celebrations.

What is Day of the Dead? 

In 2008, UNESCO added Día de los Muertos to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, thereby recognising its significance, which dates back thousands of years. 

In essence, Día de los Muertos is an interweaving pre-Colombian, Mesoamerican rituals and All Souls' Day, a festival Spanish invaders brought to Mexico in the 1500s. 

Day of the Dead © Brett Welcher/Shutterstock

Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico © Brett Welcher/Shutterstock

Mesoamerican origins of Day of the Dead

The origins of Day of the Dead extends back some 3000 years, to the death rituals observed by the Mesoamerican Nahua people.

In their world view, death did not represent a division from life. Instead, life and death were seen as part of the same cycle. Humans were viewed as a bridge between heaven and earth, and death was not seen as an ending. Rather, it marked the start of a new voyage. 

The Nahua believed that the souls of the dead made a journey to the Chicunamictlán (the Land of the Dead) before being delivered to Mictlán, its final, underworld resting place.

In August, offerings of food and drink were made to departed relatives to aid their journey, which explains the origins of some current Day of the Dead rituals (more on those below). 

This worldview is bound-up in the Mesoamerican concept of the World Tree, which is at the centre of the Mesoamerican universe. With its roots in the earth, and its branches in the heavens, the World Tree unites the underworld with the earth and sky.  

Travel tip: readers interested in Mesoamerican culture might want to note that one stele at the Olmec site of La Venta depicts what’s thought to be the first representation of the World Tree. 

Olmec big basalt head - Villahermosa, Mexico © Shutterstock

Olmec big basalt head - Villahermosa, Mexico © Shutterstock

Spanish influences on Day of the Dead rituals and celebrations  

As a result of wanting to convert the indigenous peoples of Mexico to Catholicism, Spanish colonisers moved the rituals around what we now know as Dia de los Muertos from August to November.

And the reason? They sought to bring it in line with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. 

Today, Day of the Dead rituals see Mexicans commemorate the transitory return of deceased relatives and loved ones. In a sense, it's a temporary reunion of the living and the dead. It also celebrates life and the inevitable journey of death. 

Traditional altar for Day of the Dead, Mexico with orange marigolds flowers © Shutterstock

Traditional altar for Day of the Dead, Mexico with orange marigolds flowers © Shutterstock

How do people celebrate Day of the Dead?

In every home, and many businesses, people set up ofrendas (altars) for the deceased. At its centre is a candlelit photograph. 

In addition to the photo, the person’s favourite foods are placed on the altar as a way of enticing their soul back to this world.  

For the same reason, strong-scented, bright marigolds (cempasúchil) are laid in a path leading to the altar, and resinous copal incense is lit. 

Day of the Dead altar is seen in Zocalo square, downtown Mexico City, Mexico © Shutterstock

Day of the Dead altar is seen in Zocalo square, downtown Mexico City, Mexico © Shutterstock

31st October into 1st November: Día de los Angelitos

Midnight on 31st October marks the start of El Dia de los Angelitos — Day of the Little Angels — a moving way to remember children who have died. 

This is commemorated before the Day of the Dead because it’s believed the souls of children are more eager to return to earth for a temporary reunion with their families.

On this day, families who’ve lost children place sweets and toys on an altar dedicated to the child.

1st November into 2nd November: Día de los Muertos

On the night of 1st November, families gather to eat dinner together before visiting loved ones’ gravesites, which are cleaned and decorated.  

Here offerings are made to ancestors’ souls, with picnics and all-night graveside vigils a common sight.

On the streets, market stalls brim with eggy, orange-scented pan de muertos and colourfully-iced sugar skulls. 

While papier-mâché statues of dressed-up skeletons give proceedings a gothic air, far from being a sad time, the Day of the Dead is an occasion for telling funny stories, bonding with family and generally celebrating life.  

Day of the Dead skeleton © Shutterstock

Day of the Dead skeleton © Shutterstock

When is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead is celebrated annually on 2nd November, so no matter which year you’re planning to visit Mexico, you know when to come to experience it. 

Note that the day itself follows on from All Hallows Eve on 31st October, and Día de los Angelitos and All Saints Day on 1st November.

Also bear in mind that in some locations, festivities begin the Saturday before — more on that below.

Where is Day of the Dead celebrated?

While Day of the Dead originated in Mexico, it’s now celebrated all over Latin America. 

That said, it remains most marked in Mexico, where you’ll find regional differences in how the day is marked through unique, localised customs, highlights of which are outlined below.

Oaxaca 

Oaxaca — featured on our run-down of the best places to visit is widely considered to be one of the best places for travellers to witness the Day of the Dead.  

While citizens here observe the altar and grave-visiting rituals described above, in Oaxaca, Day of the Dead festivities spill onto the streets in the form of comparsas — carnival-esque parades characterised by colourful costumes, music and dancing.  

Note, this is less a case of one, big organised event, and more a case of different processions peppered around the city. 

Day of the Dead parade © Shutterstock

Day of the Dead parade © Shutterstock

Mexico City

In Mexico City, the Day of the Dead can feel more like Week of the Dead, with festivities often beginning on the Saturday before Dia de los Muertos. This is when the Great Parade of Día de Muertos takes place in the capital.  

Enormous ofrendas are erected in major squares and museums. Streets are festooned with fabulously colourful calaveras (skulls) and alebrijes (Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures). 

You’re also likely to see many people dressed as La Catrina. Also known as La Calavera Catrina – the “elegant skull” — this culturally and politically symbolic figure is characterised by intricate skull face make-up and a bonnet festooned with flowers. 

Though only celebrated in its current form from 2016, Mexico City’s Great Parade of Día de Muertos extends from the Estela de Luz (Pillar of Light) monument to the city’s main square. 

Day of the Dead face paint girl © Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

Lago de Pátzcuaro, Michoacán

Arguably saving the best for last, Lago de Pátzcuaro plays host to Dead of the Dead rituals that see thousands of spectators descend on the tiny island of Janitzio in Michoacán

On the night of 1st November, locals conduct what’s an essentially private meditation, carrying offerings of fruit and flowers to the cemetery. Chanting by candlelight, they maintain a vigil over the graves of their ancestors until dawn. 

It’s a spectacular and moving sight, especially early in the evening as indigenous peoples from the surrounding area converge on the island in their canoes, with a single candle burning in each bow. 

Thousands head to Janitzio from around 10pm on 1st November and stay until around 3am the following morning.

If you can manage it, stay up all night and return to the cemetery around 5am when it’s quiet and the first hint of dawn brightens the eastern sky.  

Alternatively, head to one of the other lakeside communities that mark the Day of the Dead – Tzurumutaro, Ihuatzio, Cucuchucho or Tzintzuntzán. Crowds will be smaller and the cemeteries no less amazing and moving.

Representative of the Mexican Day of the Dead La Catrina © Shutterstock

Representative of the Mexican Day of the Dead La Catrina © Shutterstock

Planning Your Day of the Dead celebration

Choose the right location 

If you want to experience unique, unforgettable Day of the Dead rituals and festivities for yourself, consider booking a personalised trip to Mexico

Given that visitor numbers are huge at this time, you’ll want to arrive at least a week before, and book your transport and accommodation some months in advance.

Put simply, don’t rock up randomly to any of the locations described above expecting to find a place to stay. 

To help you decide where to visit, read our guides to Mexico City, Oaxaca and Michoacán.     

Create your own ofrenda

Whether you’re lucky enough to celebrate Día de Muertos in Mexico, or are saving this remarkable experience for the future, you could make this year special by creating an ofrenda

It’s a beautiful way to honour lost loved ones, and a practice might find yourself doing as an annual commemorative ritual.

Engage in community events and activities 

Wherever you choose to celebrate the Day of the Dead, be sure to check out local community events and activities. 

This might include learning how to make yourself over as La Catrina, or finding out how to cook up pan de Muertos

You’ll also want to keep an eye out for news of localised parades.

Want more advice and info? Browse our customisable Mexico itineraries, or talk to our local experts

You might also want to read up on some of the best things to do in Mexico, and get yourself The Rough Guide to Mexico

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 13.12.2023

Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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