6 Ways To Celebrate Day Of The Dead In Mexico

1 November 2015

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico and other Latin American communities and honours the dead through a mix of Aztec beliefs that originated over 3,000 years ago and Catholic traditions. Held on November 1 and 2 every year (All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day on the Catholic religious calendar), rather than being a sombre day, instead the two-day Dia de los Muertos holiday celebrates dear departed loved ones through colourful and joyous festivals, parades, food, drink, music and dance. Here’s six ways to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.

 Catrinas are characterised by elaborate skull makeup, traditional Mexican dresses and flower crowns. (Image: Shutterstock)

1. Dress like a catrina

The corpse bride popularised in Halloween costumes is known as ‘La Calavera Catrina’ and is derived from political cartoons by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada circa 1913, which featured a female skeleton (calaca) in the high society fashion of the day (the male version is known as a ‘catrin’). Celebrating her 100th anniversary in 2013, Catrina costumes typically involve elaborate skull makeup, traditional Mexican embroidered dresses and flower crowns.

 Sugar skulls at a Day of the Dead market in Mexico. (Image: Shutterstock)

2. Give a sugar skull

A sweet treat synonymous with Day of the Dead celebrations is the sugar skull (calaveras de azucar). The ornate sugar skulls are made of pure sugar and decorated with bright colours. Given to friends as gifts, the colourful designs represent the personality and life of a deceased loved one. Candy coffins are another sweet sentiment for a bittersweet celebration.


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 Altars are filled with ofrendas for ancestors and departed loved ones. (Image: Shutterstock)

3. Make an altar

An important part of Day of the Dead rituals is a dedicated altar to ancestors on which the favourite foods and drink of the deceased is placed. These hugely symbolic offerings (ofrendas) are placed on decorated altars laden with candles, flowers (typically marigolds), photos of the deceased and the alcohol and snacks they preferred such as tamales, as well as Day of the Dead food like sugar skulls and pan de muertos – a sweet bread in the shape of a bone.

 Mariachi musicians - real and replica - are a staple of Dia de los Muertos. (Image: Shutterstock)

4. Cue the mariachi band

In Mexico, traditional mariachi bands play to ‘wake up the dead’ from their eternal slumber to party again with the living in celebrations that last all day and night. Mariachi bands play for hire in cemeteries, at parties and at festivals. Sugar skull mariachi musicians and figurines are also sold.

 A Day of the Dead wreath in Mexico. (Image: Shutterstock)

5. Visit your ancestors

Cleaning and decorating the graves of loved ones with flowers, such as marigolds, is another important Day of the Dead tradition. Many families celebrate Dia de los Muertos privately, telling stories around gravesites well into the night, but travellers can attend public celebrations in major cities. Just be mindful and respectful of family gatherings and ask before you take photos, especially in cemeteries.

 Pan de muertos ('bread of the dead') is another Day of the Dead food. (Image: Shutterstock)

6. Where to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico

The most colourful Dia de los Muertos celebrations take place in southern Mexico in cities such as Oaxaca, Chiapas and Michoacan as well as in the Yucatan peninsula and Mexico City.

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Cassandra Laffey

Consumed with unrequited wanderlust, I get my fix in 24/7 cities and hippie retreats. I'm still looking for the ultimate combo of secluded beach and major metropolis, and my happy place is a 5-star hotel room all to myself - sigh.