Meanwhile known all over the world, the mexican “day of the dead” is actually not a day but rather a week of celebration. In Mexico it’s the most important festivity of the year and while the tradition comes from the indigineous, the day was set by the Spaniards equal to the catholic “All Saints’ Day”.
Being in Mexico for this day was one of the most touching experiences I had during my stay and so different from what I expexted!
“Día de los Muertos”, taking place at the beginning of November, is an ancient mexican tradition going back to the Aztecs. They believed that once a year the dead come to visit their families to celebrate with them.
Rather than our typical quiet remembrance it’s a noisy, happy reunion. Usually the whole family would unite at the grave of one of their decedents and spend the night there talking, singing, eating and drinking.
For the dead to return there are some “prerequisits” that need to be fulfilled and around during that days you’ll encounter the following very characteristic objects and customs.
This is basically an altar built up in every house. It includes pictures of all the dead that are expected to visit, their favourite food, candles and decoration. If someone’s picture is not placed on at least one ofrenda (meaning they have been forgotten) their spirits won’t return.
While every family has their own ofrenda for deceased family members at home, public personalities usually have several big, public ofrendas in churches, townhalls or public places.
During that time you’ll barely enter a building without an ofrenda, including restaurants and hotels.
So even if you don’t have personal contacts in Mexico (which is always better, I say), you’ll get to admire many of those beautiful constructs.
Flor de Cempasúchil
Beautiful, orange flowers with an intense fragrance that is said to indicate the way back for the spirits. They are used to decorate the ofrendas and graves.
Pan de Muertos
As it turned out, this sweet bread traditional for the time around “Día de los Muertos” is pretty different in the North and the South of the country. It’s really tasty in both parts though. Mexicans love it with coffee, milk or chocolate and you’ll often find it as a gift for the visiting spirits on the ofrendas.
I dared to ask what would happen to all that nice food after remaining on the ofrenda for about a week. The answer was “We eat it! Pan de Muertos is actually tastier when it’s dry and old.”…
Well, I’m not sure I’d agree there, but you shouldn’t miss out on trying the delicious sweet bread. Nearly every bakery (and even Wallmart) sells it during that time.
Internationally known and often mistaken for a beautiful alternative of a women’s halloween costume, “La Catrina” actually was a rich, rigged, spanish women the indigenous used to make fun of.
Today people (especially girls) are often dressed like “La Catrina” around “Día de los Muertos” and “catriñarse” actually got a mexican slang word for “dressing up”.
It doesn’t really have a negative annotation anymore, but I feel like it’s rather an international symbol for Mexico and the “Day of the dead” than a traditionally meaningful thing. You’ll barely find mexicans dressing up like Catrinas, but on public places artists are making good money with painting tourists like that.
When you think of “Día de los Muertos”, especially if you’ve seen “James Bond Spectre”, you might think of big parades and people dressed up as Catrinas. And this is actually what I expected as well. But it’s not what you’ll encounter, especially not in places where the day is celebrated traditionally!
What you will actually find at night are empty streets because everybody goes to the cemetery. Yes, the cemetery!
Where I come from this is usually a sad and quiet place, but in Mexico the dead won’t return if the atmosphere at their grave is not overly cheerful (I know, mexicans are pretty demanding once dead appearently!).
The cemeteries you’ll visit on “Día de los Muertos” are crowded, loud and colourful. People will invite you to sing and drink with them and – thanks to the candles, flowers and food they bring – the air gets an incredible, sweet scent!
But I feel like I couldn’t even get close to properly describe the atmosphere! You’ll just have to go and see yourself!
Multiple days of celebration
I already mentioned “Día de los Muertos” is not (like you’d probably expect from the name) one certain day. It’s more than a week in advance when you’ll start finding the ofrendas and basically during the whole month before you’ll be offered food traditional for that day, like “Pan de Muertos”.
For decorating the ofrenda every step, like for example buying the candles or putting the food, has its own, assigned day, starting from about a week before the dead are expected.
The actual “Día de los Muertos”, meaning when the spirits arrive, are the 31st of October and the 1st of November. While in the first night all the souls are received, the second night is dedicated to deceased children. Anyhow, you won’t feel a big difference between the two days. Tours to the cemeteries and big parties afterwards occur on both days.
Tip: I’d personally recommend not to book one of the “Dia de los Muertos” – tours that several companies offer, as the cemeteries get really crowded and the traffic to get there very chaotic. You’ll spend more time waiting and searching for your group than enjoying the unique atmosphere. The “surprises” they offer in the tours are usually “Pan de Muertos”, Tequila or Mezcal you can bring yourself instead or even receive as a gift from a mexican family at a random grave, which is actually easier than you might expect. For what they offer I think the tours are completely overprized (about 20€ per person).
I’d still definitely recommend to go to a cemetery. Ask the locals for the nicest one around and simply take a taxi or an Uber there. That’s way cheaper and you can manage the time like you feel.
The best locations to celebrate
Relatively unknown among international tourist but really famous in Mexico for “Día de los Muertos” is the town of Pátzcuaro in the state Michoacán located next to a lake. On this lake there´s the small island “Janitzio” with a cemetary on it, where they still celebrate traditionally.
Not necessarily the most traditional place to celebrate. But since “James Bond Spectre” highly increased the tourism around Dia de los Muertos” with people expecting parades and crowds like in the movie, they started to follow. Nowadays you’ll encounter a big celebration there, which is rather touristic than original though.
Generally it’s said that in the south of the country the day is celebrated more. In the city of Oaxaca you’ll find a multitude of parades, beautiful public ofrendas and tours around that special day as well as mexicans celebrating traditionally. I’d call it a mixture of the two first options and it’s the one I went for.
Wherever you know someone
I personally think because it’s such an important day for mexicans, the most amazing, traditional celebration you could see would be within a family. You would eat the real, traditional food cooked by a mexican mum, sit at a grave with the family and see their ofrenda.
You might think “What? I’m supposed to disturb such a personal family celebration?”. Let me tell you: Mexicans would never consider a guest disturbing and they’d happily show you their traditions. So in case you’re invited to a family for “Día de los Muertos”, accept!
“Acéptalo, mueres por vivirlo!” – Accept it, you die to live it! (frase on a poster in Oaxaca)
I really enjoyed experiencing a culture in which death is not considered “the end” but rather a normal part of life and I highly recommend adding “Día de los Muertos” in Mexico to your bucketlist if it´s not on it yet!
As it might take some time until you can go and join the festivity in Mexico, I suggest watching the movie “Coco” for now. It explains very well the idea behind “Día de los Muertos” and is really touching at the same time. Don’t let the fact that it’s a children’s movie confuse you, everybody loves it!