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Mexico Travel Guide

12 Mexican Day of the Dead Traditions

It’s not “Mexican Halloween”.

Traditionally taking place over two days—November 1 and November 2—Mexico’s Día de Muertos is both a joyful affirmation of life and a colorful celebration of the dead, one which harks back to Mesoamerican cultures (not a spooky “Mexican Halloween” horror fest). While other countries in Latin America mark the Day(s) of the Dead in similar ways, the festivities remain most heavily associated with Mexico (thanks, Coco!). With that in mind, here are just a few Mexican Día de Muertos traditions.

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Building Altars

Altars—also known as ofrendas—are the literal centerpieces of many Day of the Dead festivities, built on a grand scale in public places and on a much more intimate level in  homes. Intended not as a place of worship, but as a refuge of remembrance meant to help guide the dead back to the realm of the living, they pay homage to lost loved ones. While there are some offerings that show up on most ofrendas—such as salt, copal, candles, and bright orange cempasúchil (marigold) flowers—more personalized mementos can include photos, drinks and, if the deceased relative is a child, toys.

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Holding Vigils

Alongside the construction of altars for the dead, many communities will spend the early hours of November 2 honoring their deceased loved ones by holding graveside vigils. Particularly in places such as Isla Janitzio, graveyards are bathed in candlelight and permeated with the scent of copal incense, truly coming alive for the night. Most people will also take the opportunity to clean the tombstones of their deceased in the days prior too, preparing it for their return to the land of the living.

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Lighting Candles

Candles often make an appearance on Day of the Dead ofrendas in Mexico; however, the reason why goes far beyond aesthetics. As with most ofrenda offerings, candles are believed to help guide the dead back to the mortal world for the evening. Similarly, dogs—thought to be guides in the afterlife—are sometimes placed on altars (in sculpture form) for the same reason.

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Displaying Cempasúchiles

A flower nicknamed “flor de muerto” (“flower of the dead”) is surely a dead cert for inclusion in Día de Muertos celebrations, right? Well, yes; enter, the cempasúchil, also known as the Aztec or Mexican marigold. In the run-up to Day of the Dead, these flowers seem to make an appearance almost everywhere, and their presence on ofrendas is practically assured. Their petals are sometimes scattered to make paths which the returning spirits can follow.

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Eating Pan de Muerto

Pan de muerto, which literally translates to “dead bread,” may not sound wildly appealing until you know what it is: sugary sweet bread with a subtle orange flavor. While the origins of this seasonal pan dulce are unclear, its present-day popularity is assured and you’ll find it sold in bakeries and supermarkets across the country in the run-up to November. However, aside from being enjoyed with coffee or hot chocolate, pan de muerto is also found adorning altares.

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Sugar Skulls

If you’re even a little bit familiar with Mexican iconography, you’ve surely seen a sugar skull or two. They’re just what the name suggests, with a few extra flourishes: petite skulls crafted from sugar, decorated with multi-colored swirls of piped icing, and sometimes, shards of foil and twinkly sequins. While sugar skulls are rarely eaten—there is no truly easy way to devour a hunk of hardened sugar—they do come into their own as decorations.

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Using Catrina Iconography

First conceptualized in the 20th century by José Guadalupe Posada, the iconic Catrina figure was actually named by Diego Rivera, who depicted her as a skeleton dressed in French finery. She’s since taken on a life of her own and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find someone with their face painted to look like a Catrina during the Day of the Dead season. Fun Fact: The masculine equivalent of the Catrina is known as the Catrin.

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Telling Literary Calaveras

Skulls, known as calaveras in Spanish, are heavily associated with the Day of the Dead festivities, but there is also another type of calavera that’s connected to Día de Muertos: the so-called literary calavera (a kind of satirical poem). Skip back a century or two, and these stories, designed essentially to have a laugh at the expense of the living by bringing their mortality into sharp focus, were very popular. While they’re still told around the Day of the Dead nowadays, the focus has shifted to telling nostalgic stories about the actually deceased.

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Dressing Up

As well as displaying Catrina imagery and telling skull stories, it’s also common—and has been for far longer than in the U.S. et al—to dress up in honor of Day of the Dead. Some people prefer to just paint their face, while others love to get spruced up like the Catrina of Diego Rivera’s famous Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central painting.

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Taking Part in Parades

Day of the Dead has, in recent times, taken on a life of its own on the silver screen: first, in Spectre, and later, in Coco. If you’ve seen the former, you may think that the famous opening scene, showing a Mexico City Day of the Dead parade, was a long-standing tradition. Wrong! In fact, for better or for worse, the film actually helped secure the parade’s spot in the Day of the Dead canon, adding a distinct whiff of commercialization to the capital’s usual festivities.

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Creating Sawdust Carpets

Given that the traditions of Day of the Dead stem from Mesoamerican cultures, some regions choose to celebrate the days in distinct and unique ways. Take Tuxtepec, for example, a small Oaxacan city. There, sawdust, seeds, rice, and flowers are arranged on the street to create sweeping, gorgeous “carpets” (or, tapetes) depicting religious motifs and floral arrangements.

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Remembering Deceased Children

As alluded to in the introduction, Day of the Dead should really be Days of the Dead. After all, the festivities are held on both November 1 and 2 each year. (It isn’t “Día de LOS Muertos” either, but simply Día de Muertos.) While November 2 is what most people imagine when thinking of Day of the Dead—a day to remember deceased adults—November 1, All Saints Day in the Catholic calendar and Día de los Inocentes (or Angelitos), is specifically dedicated to remembering the children that passed before their time.

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