Celebrating the Dead, Mexican Style

Few customs are quite as intriguing as Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities. Día de Muertos, as it is called in Spanish, takes place on November 2nd each year and is a time for people to pay homage to their loved ones who have passed away. More than simply Mexico’s version of Halloween, it is a tradition with significant differences. Read on to discover what distinguishes the Day of the Dead from Halloween.

Halloween and Day of the Dead Are Not the Same

True, death is the central of theme of both Halloween and Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Plus, there is an undeniable correlation between the dates of these festivities and the Christian practice of assimilating pagan traditions — as I will discuss below. However, the geographical and historical origins of these observances couldn’t be more different. Furthermore, the cultural practices associated with them differ significantly.

Day of the Dead Altar
Altar decorated for Day of the Dead. By Frida Arriaga / Wikicommons

Celtic Rituals and an Aztec Goddess

The first differences worth mentioning are the geographical and historical origins of both traditions. Halloween has its roots in the assimilation of early Christian and European Celtic traditions while the Day of the Dead has its roots in Mexican Aztec mythology.

The Celts celebrated New Year at the end of harvest on November 1. The time of year when the veil between the spiritual dimension became thinner, allowing spirits to make contact. As such, they would make offerings of food to appease the dead. A few centuries later and thousands of miles across the Atlantic, the Aztecs offered grand celebrations in honour of Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld and ruler of the afterlife. However, the Aztec rituals took place at the beginning of summer in a month-long festival.

Day of the Dead Procession
Day of the Dead procession to a graveyard in Mexico.

Christian Assimilation of Pagan Traditions

The early Christian church observed a comparable tradition known as All-Hallow-Tide in the spring. This religious festival refers to All Hallows Eve, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. The idea is that saints and good souls would make their transition to heaven on these days. All Hallows Eve was the last chance for bad spirits to come out and play.  In the late 9th century, the dates were changed from spring to coincide with the Celtic celebrations at the start of November. Thus, Halloween on October 31 marks the eve “een” of the Hallow “holy” days as well as the Celtic new year.

Consequently, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived to Mexico, they soon began to assimilate local rituals with Christian traditions. The festival honoring Mictecacihuatl at the start of summer merged with All-Hallow-Tide and November 2 became Day of the Dead.

What to Expect on Day of the Dead

Nowadays, Halloween has gained popularity across the globe, so don’t be surprised if you see kids dressing up in costumes and trick-or-treating in Mexico on October 31st. However, the Day of the Dead festivities on November 2 are far more sophisticated. Firstly, in the weeks leading up to the festival, you will see sugar skulls and candles on sale everywhere, while Pan de Muerto — a delicious sweet bread whose name literally translates as the somewhat unappealing “dead bread” — is on offer in every bakery and supermarket. Likewise, bright orange marigolds (Cempasuchil) grace florists and roadside stalls.

Tombs and Altars

Families will prepare altars big and small in their homes in honour of their deceased loved ones, decorating them with photographs, skulls, marigolds and the once favourite items of the dearly departed. Most importantly, the altar will feature pan de muerto and lighted candles. These items provide light and sustenance to the visiting spirits for their journey back to the afterlife. Many families will visit the graves of their loved ones, taking food, music, candles and flowers for a festive vigil. It is not uncommon for mariachi musicians to perform in the graveyards at this time of year. It can be quite a party for some.

Skeletons Day of the Dead Mexico
La Calavera Catrina (Elegant Skull) made famous by Mexican lithographer, José Guadlupe Posadas, has become an icon for the Day of the the Dead


Why not book a cultural getaway for 2019 and experience the Dead of the Dead for yourself?

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Deborah Buley

Originally from the UK and an avid globetrotter, Deborah has lived in Mexico for nearly 10 years, having honed a successful writing career that specializes in sassy travel, upscale interior design, classy hotels and high-end real estate. Among other projects, she collaborated with a renowned Mexican architect to pen a glossy book about the interior design and architecture of a local villa as well as produced a variety of promotional materials for luxury hotels and elite residences in Mexico.