Día de los Muertos Traditions in Mexico
Cultures around the world have celebrations for the dead around the end of October and beginning of November. In the United States, Halloween is celebrated on October 31st. Known primarily for dressing up in costume and indulging in candy and other goodies, this fun American holiday has lost some of the spirituality at the core of the event.
In Mexico, Día de los Muertos — or the Day of the Dead — has retained its cultural and spiritual underpinnings to an unbelievable extent. Celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd, Día de los Muertos celebrates life through death. Since death is a natural part of life, Mexicans believe it is actually something to be celebrated. Through this celebration, dignity and joy are displayed for loved ones lost.
History of the holiday
Día de los Muertos (often called just Día de Muertos in Mexico) has a long and fascinating history. Historians believe civilizations in what is now Mexico have performed rituals celebrating their ancestors and departed loved ones for around 2,500–3,000 years.
Today’s celebrations have evolved from ancient pre-Columbian traditions and were most likely influenced by old Aztec festivals dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld.
Modern celebrations are a synthesis of original indigenous celebrations and Catholic European traditions. For example, one thing that changed with European influence is the date: Día de los Muertos is now celebrated in early November as opposed to early August.
Photo: Alejandro Linares Garcia
How is Día de los Muertos celebrated today?
While communities throughout Mexico have slightly different traditions, public celebrations are held in local cemeteries and at home, where families build altars for their loved ones. Celebrations typically last 2-3 days.
- October 31, All Hallows Eve: Local children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back. At midnight on October 31, souls of the departed begin their journey back to their families, but the angelitos arrive first.
- November 1, Día de los Angelitos / All Saints Day: Also called Día de los Inocentes, this is a day for families to celebrate with the angelitos. People also make sure altars for departed adults are ready for the next day.
- November 2, Día de los Muertos / All Souls Day: Families spend this day celebrating and visiting with the souls of adults who have come back to visit.
You may have seen pictures of decorated graves and elaborate altars before. Those are some of the most iconic images of Día de los Muertos.
View the jewelry of Dia de los Muertos
Take a look at some of our favorite Dia de los Muertos inspired pieces. These items are hand selected my our silver jewelry shop and fully encapsulate the spirit of this incredible holiday.
All items are handcrafted here in Mexico and add a festive flare to your Dia de los Muertos attire.
While you may be unable to travel to Mexico to enjoy an authentic Dia de los Muertos celebration, you can still participate in the culture of the event!
Browse our Dia de los Muertos collection and many other fine jewelry pieces at our online silver store!
What can you find near a grave on Día de los Muertos?
One of the key aspects of the holiday is the decoration of grave sites and altars for the holiday. While this may seem macabre to some Americans, this is a special part of the holiday tradition and one of the most meaningful parts of the holiday in Mexico!
Grave sites are adorned with ofrendas (elaborate altars containing offerings for departed loved ones). Ofrendas might include tissue paper cutouts, candles, incense, sugar skulls, pan de muertos (bread of the dead), and skeleton dolls. Loved ones’ photos, possessions, and favorite foods are also brought to adorn the graves.
You can also expect to see a large number of marigolds, which are often referred to as “el flor de muerto” (the flower of the dead).
People often bring toys for dead children or jars of atole (a traditional hot corn and masa-based drink) for adults. Pillows and blankets are sometimes laid out to give souls a place to rest after their long trip back to the land of the living.
All these things are meant as an offering to passed souls to encourage them to come back and visit.
Iconic Día de los Muertos imagery
No Día de los Muertos celebration would be complete without calacas, which are skeleton figures based on Aztec imagery. Calacas are often small figurines made of wood, clay, or even candy. Sometimes skull masks are even carved to wear during the celebrations.
To demonstrate a happy afterlife, calacas are usually depicted wearing brightly colored, festive clothing, playing musical instruments, or dancing.
Calacas in popular culture: Calacas have inspired a lot of art over the years. You’ll see calaca-like figures in some of Tim Burton’s movies, including Corpse Bride and the Nightmare Before Christmas. The 1998 computer game Grim Fandango (one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time), features calaca-inspired figures as characters navigating an Aztec-like afterlife.
Calaveras literally translates to “skulls” in spanish. You’ll definitely find many sugar skulls, skull art, and other skull-related decorations at a typical Día de los Muertos celebration, but there’s another kind of calavera, too.
Calaveras are also a type of short, satirical poem that discusses the death of a person who is still alive (a politician, famous person, relative, etc.). Think of it like a funny epitaph for someone who is living
Beginning in the 19th century, newspapers started publishing these literary calaveras in November along with drawings or cartoons of people depicted as skeletons.
Here’s an example of one from 1903 by famous artist and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada:
A happy celebration
Unlike many other cultures’ traditions to honor the dead, Mexico’s Day of the Dead isn’t somber; Día de los Muertos is fun!
Some customs like literary calaveras might not make sense in cultures where death is considered a sad and serious subject. But calaveras and other happy depictions of death are just examples of the cultural differences in the way Mexican culture views death.
Calaveras aren’t intended to be mean; they’re a clever way to playfully poke fun at loved ones or to satirize political figures.
This more upbeat attitude towards death is the same reason that Día de los Muertos is considered a celebration instead of an observance. On this day, the cemetery turns into a lively place where you’ll see family members praying for their loved ones or remembering funny moments and stories from their lives.
After all, if the goal is to encourage souls to come back and visit, why not make it a party worth attending?
How YOU can celebrate Día de los Muertos
Although the biggest Día de los Muertos celebrations are in Mexico, people all around the world celebrate it too! If you’d like to throw a party, or you just want to incorporate some festive elements into your Halloween celebrations this year, here are some ideas:
- Give your Halloween party a Día de los Muertos theme
- Make pan de muertos and sugar skulls
- Paint your face
- Create an altar for someone who has passed or visit their grave with ofrendas
- Wear jewelry inspired by Día de los Muertos. (Check out some of our necklaces, bracelets, rings, or earrings for ideas!)
- Visit our Pinterest board for more inspiration!