What does the Day of the Dead celebrations really represent to Mexicans?

In Mexico, each town, each region, has its traditions, its uses and customs. Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time of celebration.

During the festival, families and communities gather to honour those who passed on and embarked on their spiritual paths.

On November 1, called All Saints Day, is when the children’s spirits arrive. On November 2, the Day of the Dead, the adults arrive.

The Origin of the Day of the Dead

The origins go back to the time of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, Mayas, Purepecha, Nahuas and Totonacas.

In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common the practice of preserving skulls as trophies and displaying them during rituals that symbolised death and rebirth.

Death has been in all cultures and throughout history an event that invites reflection, rituals, ceremonies, the search for answers, causes of fear, and uncertainty.

In Pre-Hispanic cultures, the belief is that those who departed continue their path in the world of the afterlife.

The god Mictacacihuatl as known as the “Lady of Death” officiated the festivities. Today, Mexican people also incorporate elements of Catholicism and even modern touches.

When the Spanish conquerors arrived in America in the fifteenth century. The Spanish terrified by the practices the natives performed, and in an attempt to convert the natives to Catholicism they moved the festival to November to coincide with the Catholic festivities of All Saints and All Souls Day.

The Day of the Dead Celebrations and Traditions


The most representative element of the Day of the Dead holiday in Mexico is the altars with their offerings, a representation of our vision of death, full of allegories and meanings.

Altars begin to take shape on October 28 and reach their maximum splendour on November 2. It is common to offer on the first day to light a candle and place a white flower; then another candle and a glass of water the next day. 

People continue decorating the altars with seasonal fruit such as tangerine, guava, orange, apple, or tejocote (a typical Mexican fruit.) As well as the favourite food of the deceased plus drinks such as tequila, mezcal or beer.

The altars help to guide the dead back to the realm of the living; they pay homage to lost loved ones. They include Saints that are important to the particular family.

These offerings could include, flowers, fruit, food, bread, water or any drink to quench the thirst after the long journey, family photos, candles and photos of each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, small toys might be on the altar.

Skulls of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera


Alongside the construction of altars for the dead, many communities will spend the early hours of November 2 honouring their deceased loved ones by holding graveside vigils.

In Mexico, each town, each region has its own traditions, and its personal uses and customs. Some graveyards are covered in candlelight and permeated with the scent of copal incense indeed 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.


Granulated white sugar mixture makes a traditional sugar skull which then is pressed into unique heads moulds when it is dry, the sugar skull is decorated with icing, feathers, coloured foil, and more.

The skulls are decorations to recognise the person who passed. The “Calavera” has the name of the deceased, and the size of the skull might vary.


The candles are guides to this world. Four big candles are set, symbolising the four cardinal points. Other candles are spread over the altar, representing the path for the dead to get to the earth. The candles are usually of beeswax or paraffin.


Cempasúchil a flower nicknamed “flor de Muerto” (Flower of the Dead) also known as the Aztec or Mexican marigold, they appear almost everywhere; their petals are sometimes scattered to make paths which the returning spirits can follow.


Bread of the Dead (Pan de Muerto) is a sugary sweet bread with a subtle orange flavour. You’ll find it in bakeries and supermarkets across the country in the run-up to November. It also adorns altars and people will eat it will coffee or hot chocolate.


Catrina was an elegant and well-dressed woman who symbolises the Day of the Dead and the willingness to laugh at death itself.

José Guadalupe Posada captured the Catrina in the 20th century. The iconic Catrina figure was named by Diego Rivera, who depicted her as a skeleton dressed in French finery.


It is customary for women on Day of the Dead to wear long, floral headpieces and Mexican dresses during the event.

Meanwhile, Mexican men often wear beautiful, smart clothing, and black hats on Dia de Los Muertos.

Men will often wear black hats, women will opt for floral headpieces.

Some people prefer to paint their face, while others love to dress up like the Catrina of Diego Rivera’s famous Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central painting.


In recent times, Day of the Day has taken on a life of its own on the cinema screen; first, in Spectre, and later, in Coco.

Live music, such as the music of Mariachis, students, trios and other local music groups, artists and jugglers, take part.


Families visit the graves of the deceased to clean them and fix them with flowers and candles. This visit is another example of the richness and diversity of tradition.

Many people spend the night there with the family together and hire Mariachi music, trios or local musical groups.


The Day of the Dead celebration varies from region to region, from town to town, but they all have a universal principle: the family gathers to welcome the souls, place the altars and offerings, visit the cemetery and arrange the graves , attend religious offices, say goodbye to visitors and sit at the table to share food, which after the offering has been lifted, has lost its aroma and flavor, since the dead have taken their essence.

National Geographic has made a short video on how the Day of the Day started and the traditions.

What about yourself? What kind of traditions you celebrate in your country. Why not share them in the comments below?

With much appreciation


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