The beginner's guide to the Day of the Dead
Everyone will have heard of the Day of the Dead and associate it with both Halloween and Mexico. But how much do you really know about the significance of the holiday? And did you know that you can experience for yourself the sights, sounds and smells of one of the great festivals celebrated anywhere in the world? Find out more with our beginners guide to the Day of the Dead.
What is it all about?
The Day of the Dead is actually a multi-day holiday in Mexico, the main purpose of which is to get together with friends and family to remember and pray for loved ones that have passed away. The gates of heaven are said to open, first to allow the souls of young children back out, and then the adults the next day. It is a mixture of the sombre and the surreal, private memorials and public parades.
Sample Day of the Dead itinerary with Mayan pyramids & colonial heritage
Where do the celebrations originate from?
The origins of the Day of the Dead are found in the Catholic beliefs of the country. The day serves to offer prayers for the souls of the deceased, seeking to ease their passage into heaven from the state of purgatory some may find themselves in. Going further back in Mexican history, the Aztec civilisation actually dedicated an entire month to the departed.
When does the festival take place?
The Day of the Dead festival is actually three days, beginning with Halloween on October 31st, followed by El Dia de los Inocentes on November 1st, a day dedicated to children and ending on November 2nd with El Dia de los Muertos itself. Preparations can often take place throughout the year though, and shrines built in homes can be maintained beyond the holiday period.
Where is it celebrated?
The festival is celebrated throughout the towns and cities of Mexico and to a lesser extent in other Latin American countries such as Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil. The growing Mexican population in the United States has given rise to ever more prominent celebrations north of the border.
What happens during the festivities?
The Day of the Dead has gained worldwide fame for the vivid La Catrina skeleton costumes and spectacular parades that bring the celebrations to life and attract increasing numbers of tourists.
The skull is the symbol of the celebrations, it is traced back thousands of years when skulls were kept as mementos and featured heavily in rituals and celebrations. Today, sugar skulls are intricately painted in bright colours as part of the festivities and feature on many masks, whilst women often paint half their face in a skull, symbolising the transition between life and death.
Another important facet of the holiday is the Pan de Muerto - a large sugary loaf of bread made with citrus fruits, often moulded into different shapes on top.
Beyond the razzmatazz of the celebrations and costumes though, the holiday has a sobre, serious and deeply moving tone. In the run up to the day loved ones will attend to and decorate the graves of the deceased and prepare ofrendas (offerings).
Families often gather in homes to remember departed relatives, creating elaborate altars, in which candles are ceremoniously lit, decorating them with flowers, photos and mementos of the dead, as well as the offerings of lovingly baked food, fresh fruit or favourite items of clothing. Toys are given for young children or sometimes cigarettes and alcohol for adults. The purpose of this is to attract the attention of the souls of the deceased and open their ears to the prayers of their family. Amusing anecdotes are shared to lighten the mood and often short poems are written in homage.
How can you experience it?
Some of the most authentic places to experience the Day of the Dead for yourself are the wonderful colonial era town of San Miguelle de Allende, which has a four day cultural festival and a fabulous market as part of the celebrations, Mérida on the Yucatán peninsula and Oaxaca, with its night-time processions and graveyard fun fairs. Thanks to James Bond and the epic fictional parade through the centre of the city in the recent Spectre film, you can now attend a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City - so spectacular was it that the city decided to put on one for real in 2016.
Given the number of visitors which are attracted to the celebrations, it is never too early to plan your trip. Veloso Tours can find you the perfect hotel from which to base yourself and create an authentic and carefully-planned itinerary to help you experience the best of Mexico during this time of celebration.
See our selection of in-depth tours, taking you to the heart of this extraordinary country.