Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, from October 31 to November 2. This is the time when Mexicans take the time to remember and honor their departed loved ones. While it may seem like it’s supposed to be a sad occasion, it’s not. In fact, it’s a very festive and colorful, since people are celebrating the lives of those who have passed on. During this time, people visit cemeteries to decorate the graves of their loved ones as well as spend time in their presence.

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Back home, Mexican families also create beautiful altars called ofrendas, where they display photos of their loved ones. It serves to not only honor the spirits of their ancestors but welcome them as well.

One very important fact to note is that the Day of the Dead was recognized in 2008 by UNESCO as part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. This is due to the undeniable significance of the practice to Mexican culture, which makes it unique.

History and cultural background

Mexicans are known for keeping close family ties, even with those who have passed away. Even in pre-Hispanic times, the dead were always buried close to where the family lived, and people would have their own tombs near or even underneath the house. This was because it was believed that those who passed away still existed, only in another world.

Eventually, the Spanish introduced Catholicism and integrated the concepts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day with pre-Hispanic customs, making it the holiday that most people know today.

The Day of the Dead, however, remains premised on the belief that once a year the spirits of the dead return to the world of the living to be in the presence of their loved ones. They also believe in the concept of angelitos, or “little angels,” who are the spirits of babies and small children who died. The angelitos are said to return to the world of the living on the 31st of October to spend time with their families for one day and then leave. The adults arrive the day after.

Offerings and practices

- Home: Of course, the living don’t just wait for their dearly departed to return to the land of the living. They get ready for their arrival by preparing all the foods they loved when they were alive. These offerings are laid down before the altars prepared in their homes, and it is believed that the spirits will consume the essence of the food offered to them. Afterward, when the spirits return to their world, the family shares the food with their friends and neighbors and amongst themselves.

Aside from food, there are other items that are commonly found in altars, including sugar skulls, which are inscribed with the names of the deceased loved ones. There’s also pan de muertos, which is special bread that is traditionally baked for the occasion. Finally, are the cempasuchil or marigolds. These flowers are known to bloom during this season and add a special scent to the altars.

- At the cemetery: Eventually, the practice of burying people close to their homes was replaced by the use of cemeteries. Nowadays, most families have a separately decorated altar at the graves where their loved ones are buried. Most villages had the practice of spreading flower petals on the paths leading from the cemetery to their homes as a way to guide the spirits. Others make it a point to spend the night at the cemeteries, where they have picnics, play music, and enjoy each other’s company, presumably with the spirits of their ancestors in attendance.

Halloween and the Day of the Dead

Día de los Muertos and Halloween have a lot in common. For one thing, they both come from beliefs about death that are heavily influenced by Christian practices. Both are also based on the premise that spirits return to the world of the living at least once a year. The difference, however, is that Halloween portrays spirits are malevolent spirits that seek to harm the living (which is why children dress up as monsters for protection), while the Day of the Dead is based on the belief that these spirits are family and friends who are welcomed back.

With the continuous mixing of cultures and the evolution of customs, the Day of the Dead continues to change to suit the signs of the times. In fact, Halloween festivals have become a common part of the holiday in Mexico, with children wearing masks and donning costumes bought from markets right next to the pan de muertos and sugar skulls. They even hold costume contests, altar contests and, of course, go trick or treating.

Día de los Muertos for visitors

While the Day of the Dead is mainly a family celebration, it’s actually an ideal time for tourists to visit Mexico, where they can witness these celebrations first hand while enjoying the beauty of the fall season. There are many public displays and events that allow tourists to take part in the holiday. Tourists are even welcome in cemeteries, so long as they abide by the customs and act respectfully. The event, after all, is about honoring the dead.

Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead in so many ways, depending on the region, so you can visit different areas and have different experiences of the same occasion. Just make sure that you plan your next trip to Mexico ahead, so that you’ll know where to go and what to do to make it in time for this unique holiday. More importantly, make sure you learn as much as possible about Mexican culture and beliefs in order to make sure that you experience the more solemn aspects of Día de los Muertos as well.