Day of the Dead, A 3-Day Celebration

Contrary to its name, El Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a 3-day celebration; though many of the Day of the Dead traditions kick off much earlier. Mexicans can spend a year working on their megaofrendas (referenced later) and throughout the month of October vendors sell the Day of the Dead bread (Pan de Muerto) and sugar skulls (calaveras).

October 31: Day of the Dead Altar

Traditionally, on October 31, Mexicans constructed their altars with offerings (ofrendas) in schools, churches, households and community areas. As modern-day ofrendas outside the home are intricate handmade works of art they often require much more dedicated time, up to a year. Later in the article, I dismantle the Day of the Dead altar and all its Day of the Dead decorations.

November 1: All Saints Day

All Saints Day (Día de Todos Los Santos) is the day in which the souls of the children return. The influence of Halloween is evident as children will carry pumpkins and ‘pedir calavaritas’ (ask for skulls or “trick-or-treat”) for candy and money on this day. More traditionally and commonly, individuals and families go to the mausoleum (panteón) or cemetery (cementerio) to have a picnic or even sleep there.

Anecdotally, my mom who’s Mexican said her family never participated in this holiday. She said that those who went to the cemeteries were of a different class. I have a large family in Mexico and none visited a cemetery when I was in Mexico over this time period; though, my uncle took me to a cemetery in San Pedro Tléahuac, a neighborhood in Mexico City so I could experience the Day of the Dead. Later in the article, I describe the visit.

November 2: Día de Muertos

The holiday’s namesake, All Souls Day (Día de Muertos) falls on November 2 when the souls of the adults return. Adults and children may attend parties with games and sweet treats. They may wear Day of the Dead costumes to the parties, all three days or all weekend depending on when the holiday falls. With the influence of Halloween, it’s common for children and adults alike to dress up in costume. Generally, they will wear skull faces, skeleton shirts and “calavera catrina” costumes (a skeleton dressed in late 19th century / early 20th century European women’s attire). I describe the “calavera catrina” below.

Day of the Dead History

Borne from a pre-Hispanic, Aztecan tradition influenced by Catholicism, 20th century Mexican artists and Halloween, the Day of the Dead is a vibrant, cultural celebration of both the living and the dead. The Day of the Dead is a celebration of life and as Mexican culture is steeped in art, folklore and food, so are the Day of the Dead traditions. Modern-day Day of the Dead costumers and Day of the Dead art can be attributed to two important 20th century Mexican artists discussed below. Though uniquely the Day of the Dead continues to morph and expand. While the citizens were not unanimous, Mexico City elected to host its very first Day of the Dead parade in 2016, in response to tourist demand after seeing the James Bond film, ‘Spectre.’ Mexico’s Day of the Dead is expanding past its borders into the United States. While the Day of the Dead costume is a popular one during Halloween, I see references to the Day of the Dead art throughout the year in New York City.

José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) and “La Calavera de la Catrina”

Day of the Dead is not a solemn event. Mexicans are making fun of and laughing at death (la muerte). The satirical aspect of Day of the Dead is credited to the cartoonist, illustrator and artist, José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. Posada is known posthumously for his calaveras (skulls) and his most famous work, “La Calavera de la Catrina” (elegant skull), a black-and-white zinc etching. In this sketch, he places a hat in fashion with the European aristocracy at the time on a skull to suggest upper class Mexicans were embracing European sensibilities too liberally.

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and “Sueño de un Tarde Dominical en la Almendra Central”

In 1948, Diego Rivera popularized La Calavera Catrina by adding a body and name to the drawing in his mural, “Sueño de un Tarde Dominical en la Almendra Central” (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon Along Central Almendra). If you want to be authentic and wear a Day of the Dead costume for Halloween in the US, wear a 19th Century European dress and wide-brimmed hat with your painted Calavera Catrina face.

Common Day of the Dead Altar Offerings and Day of the Dead Decorations

Household, public and cemetery altars are common Day of the Dead traditions. In Mexico City for example, you can visit ofrendas in any church, art center, neighborhood plaza, etc. For example, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), one of the largest and leading universities in the Spanish-speaking world, holds an annual megaofrenda, displaying some 120 life-size, elaborate ofrendas. In contrast, my uncle’s household ofrenda for my grandparents was much simpler. It included a photo, many of the items listed below, a bottle of rum and two shots glasses. 

Day of the Dead Skulls (Calaveras) of all shapes, sizes, color and design are a key offering. The most common calaveras are made of sugar and are called alfeñiques. Likewise, fruit, animals and human skeletons in both fanciful and everyday scenes of life are made of sugar and sold at markets.The calavera and catrina are prominent symbols in modern-day Day of the Dead art, costumers and traditions. Sugar calaveras and other candies are a staple ofrenda (offering) for the deceased. As well, they can be given as gifts for the living. In this case, the sugar skull will have a place to write a name. As Mexico has a strong artesian tradition, calaveras and catrinas can be purchased in various sizes, styles and materials.

Day of the Dead Calavera Catrina is a skeleton woman with a painted skull face dressed in 19th century European attire. As mentioned above, many interpretations are used during the Día de Muertos. 

Dead of the Dead Calaveras Literarias are tongue-and-cheek epitaphs written for the living, such as famous people or teachers and often for competitions. I visited a middle school with a beautiful ofrenda that took them a month to build. Also displayed on enormous boards were a series of calaveras literarias writtened by the students accompanied by pictures of calaveras. Each year, the students and faculty of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), one of the top universities of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site create life-size altars with ofrendas and calaveras literarias to collectively honor a book or author.

Day of the Dead Cempasuchiles or marigolds are the flowers of Día de Muertos. The color and scent trace the path for the deceased to make their way home.

Day for the Dead Copal is incense is burned to rid the area of evil spirits.

Day of the Dead Fruit adorn the altars.

Dead of the Day Bread (Pan de Muerto) is a sweet, circular egg bread designed and sprinkled with sugar to look like twisted bones eaten during the month leading up to Dia de Muertos. Generally neutral in color, they can also be red. As well, Day of the Dead bread can be made in varying sizes from single servings to the size of a corpse, plain or filled with chocolate or caramel and in other shapes, such as rabbits.

My cousin taught me a Pan de Muerto joke. When something smells bad, you can say “huele de pan…” (it smells like bread) then after a comedic pause you can deliver the punch line, “de muerto” (of the dead). I received solid chuckles when I tried it out.

Day of the Dead Papel Picado Day of the Dead decorations made from colorful tissue paper.

Photos The ofrenda will display a photo of the deceased placed prominently on the altar.

The Deceased’s Favorite Things or Items Once Owned by the Deceased While my uncle put out a bottle of rum for my grandparents, I’ve seen cigarettes, toys, books, a favorite dish and many other everyday items on altars.

Visiting the Day of the Dead Cemetery with my Uncle in Mexico City

My uncle and I headed out in the evening of November 2 to San Andrés Mixquic (also known as Mixquic), one of a handful of towns considered to have the best Día de Muertos event in Mexico, for my first authentic Día de Muertos to visit a ‘panteón’ (monumental cemetery).

While technically in the Mexico City borders, Mixquic was 30 miles or about an hour drive with normal traffic from our starting point, Coyoacán, a neighborhood of Mexico City. About two hours later we passed a town with a decorated plaza and market abuzz with Día de Muertos activity. My uncle announced we had arrived. According to my GPS, we still had about five miles to go (and two hours due to holiday traffic) to reach Mixquic. This was confirmed later when we left. We went in the opposite direction of how we arrived to catch the highway and I saw the line of cars headed to Mixquic. I didn’t have the heart to tell my uncle we never made it or he didn’t have the heart to tell me.

Tláhuac’s Día de Muertos Celebration

In San Pedro Tláhuac’s (Tláhuac), street market vendors sold the various offerings for household and cemetery altars (ofrendas). The church, the Museo Regional de Tláhuac and other locations in town were decorated with papel picado (tissue paper decorations) and displayed grand ofrendas (offerings or altars). The Museum was celebrating their second annual Festival de Las Almas in which they honored the 100th anniversary of the death of the Mexican artist, José Guadalupe Posada, whose famous socially-satirical etching, La Calavera Catrina serves as a foundation of Mexico’s modern-day Day of the Dead celebration.

The Enchanted Cemetery

We had walked three blocks, exploring the alters and placing pesos in children’s pumpkins, when we reached a cemetery illuminated by hundreds of candles. We strolled around the perimeter, careful to not intrude on private family moments. A few older women were sitting alone with their offerings, others were in groups light-heartedly talking about their day. We watched mariachi-for-hire groups sing the deceased’s favorite song and a group in indigenous ceremonial outfits dance to a single drum beat.

As is generally the case with exploration, the unexpected path can be the most rewarding.

I love comments! Do you have any other Day of the Dead questions or your own experiences to share? Please reach out below.