To start, any holiday that extends their celebrations for 2-days is top notch in my book. Add to that bright colors, serious festivities, the infinite diversity of calacas (skull or skeleton), and the overall otherworldly, magical feel and Dia de los Muertos is easily one of the coolest holidays. It’s actually so cool and such a defining attribute of Mexican culture that UNESCO recognized it as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. I still have so much to learn and even more to experience with this holiday but as a newbie to Mexico these 6 Dia de los Muertos traditions have me all heart-eye emoji 😍 like.
But first what it’s not
Dia de los Muertos, while it shares some similarities to Halloween is not Halloween. Halloween’s origins actually stem from the idea that spirits were wicked which is why children were disguised; they wore costumes so they wouldn’t be harmed. Dia de los Muertos, however, welcomes the spirits, many of which are family and friends visiting from heaven.
Tradition 1 🇲🇽 Significance
Dia de los Muertos is a holiday to remember and honor loved ones who have passed on. It’s believed that the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of deceased children are allowed to reunite with their families (November 1 – All Saint’s Day). The following day, the spirits of the adults join the festivities (November 2 – All Soul’s Day).
While I can’t help but picture souls flying around like something out of Ghostbusters, it isn’t meant to be scary or morbid. Rather a joyful time to celebrate those lives that have left us. And there’s something so beautiful and peaceful about that. It’s like a family reunion… but at the cemetery. Speaking of which…
Tradition 2 🇲🇽 GRAveyard vigils
When a friend told me about this I thought he was messing with me. “The best place to celebrate Dia de los Muertos is at the cemetery.” Pátzcuaro in Michoacán to be specific. While we aren’t going this year, it has shot up to the top of the Mexico Bucket List. From what I’ve read, you take a boat to Janitzio, a small island in the Pátzcuaro Lake, where the indigenous group have amazeballs Dia de los Muertos rituals. Families gather in the cemetery and fisherman light up the lake with torches.
While the thought of graveyard partying sounds totally terrifying to me (because Thriller and because I’m a scaredy cat), it’s common. They have folk dances and families bring a feast. People clean off the tombs. They eat and play cards and sing songs. They tell stories of their loved ones and talk to their ancestors. It’s a graveyard party and everyone is invited.
Tradition 3 🇲🇽 Pan de Muerto
Oh sweet heavenly bread. I first spotted pan de muerto (bread of the dead) in Walmart of all places. Bread with – is that sugar on top? It was.
Sine then, I warm one up every morning while I made my coffee. I sit outside in our backyard patio to get started with the day’s work and bite into a lightly orange-flavored sweet roll. It is yuuuuuuuuuuum. From what I hear, it’s baked in Mexico during the weeks leading up to the Día de Muertos. I really hope it’s baked for longer than that because, seriously, YUM.
Don’t worry, no dead people were actually used in the making of pan de muerto.
Tradition 4 🇲🇽 Altars
So if you could imagine the gates of heaven opening up and releasing the dead to come back for a family reunion you’d also have to imagine that the road trip to the land of the living might take a while. The altar (or ofrenda) is twofold. First, it acts as a guide, a Google Maps for the dead, if you will. The glow of the candles and colorful papel picado (think Mexican craft flags) are the spotlight to help deceased Aunt Sally find your house. Sometimes, a path of marigold petals are dropped to further help guide.
Second, the altar also serves as the dinner table. Here you offer the spirits food and drink for their long travel. Pan de muerto, fruit, corn, a glass of water (because they’ll be thirsty) and their favorite foods. So for me: pepperoni pizza, my mom’s vaca frita, and a bottle of Sauvignon, chilled.
Tradition 5 🇲🇽 Mexican marigolds
You’ll typically also find marigolds on an altar and in abundance around this time of year because they flower during rainy season. The yellow marigolds are also know as flor de muerto or the flower of the dead and symbolize of life on Earth – brief but colorful. And their history dates back to the Aztecs (how cool is that). They associated the yellow flower’s color with the sun and believed they would help guide those who passed.
They aren’t my favorite flowers but the bright yellow and orange is also a radiant reminder that it’s Fall. And I freaking love Fall.
Tradition 6 🇲🇽 Las catrinas
Perhaps my favorite tradition though is “La Catrina.” You’ve seen the images a million times and have probably never realized that the tall, elegantly dressed female skeleton donning a fancy, extravagant hat, actually had a name. It was one of the first art pieces that caught my eye here and I loved her even more after hearing that the aristocrat skeleton was used as social commentary.
La Catrina dates back to José Guadalupe Posada who drew a caricature of “La Calavera Garbancera” around 1910 as a critique of the rich and elite. Dressed in fine European clothes, La Catrina was a dig at those that had turned their backs on their indigenous roots. But, she also symbolizes the great equalizer: death. Essentially, no matter how much you have, death comes for everyone. In the end, we all end up in the same place.
I am stoked, over the top, beyond the rainbow excited to check out La Catrina festival this weekend in Guanajuato. Tell me you wouldn’t be excited too!!
One of the things I was most excited about our move to Mexico was learning about the rich history and culture and considering we’re only in our second month here, I’d say we’re off to a good start.