Everything You Need to Know About Day of the Dead

Are you ready to discover everything there is to know about Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations? Get ready to experience a whole new way to honour the dead..

Contrary to popular belief, the Day of the Dead fiesta, or Día de Muertos, is a celebration of life. Surprised? Don’t worry! You’ll leave here completely enlightened, knowing everything you’ll need to know to celebrate Day of the Dead like a local…starting with: what is it exactly?

The three-day festivity, starting October 31 and finishing November 2, is a popular Mexican holiday that celebrates the reunion of dead relatives with their friends and families. The fiesta is believed to help the souls of loved ones on their spiritual journey to the afterlife.

One of the most prominent traditions involves building altars called ofrendas in honor of the deceased. Families will visit the graves of loved ones – tidying and decorating sites with candles, trinkets, zempasuchil (marigolds; the flowers of the dead) colourfully painted skeletons, and the deceased’s favourite candies and beverages, including atole and mezcal.

A table of prepared food, laid out on behalf of the deceased. Photo by Davide Novelo

This may all seem slightly morbid to those not familiar with Mexican culture. But it is quite the contrary, as Mexicans believe in the life-death-rebirth continuum; that death is part of the circular nature of life; it is not something to be feared, but rather acknowledged and celebrated.

La Calavera Catrina or the ‘Elegant Skull’ is an iconic image thought to embody the spirit of Día de Muertos. Dating back to the 1910’s, this zinc etching of a female skeleton donning a feathered hat, was sketched by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. The image, thought to symbolise the contrasting upper and lower classes, has gone on to inspire interpretations by many Mexican artists since, including Diego Rivera.

Photo by Randal Sheppard
Elegant Skull’s image is seen throughout Mexico City during Day of the Dead celebrations. Photo by Randal Sheppard

So where did it all begin?

Day of the Dead celebrations date back to pre-Hispanic times and rose from the ancient traditions of pre-Columbian cultures some 2,500 years ago.

Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer for an entire month. The ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico (Purepecha, Nahua, Totonac and Otomi) believed that the souls of the dead return each year to visit with their living relatives – to eat, drink and be merry, replicating what they did when they were living.

Photo by Cidades para Pessoas
Dancers in skull face celebrate in the streets throughout the evening. Photo by Cidades para Pessoas

The festival now takes place October 31, November 1 and November 2, thought to coincide with Christian traditions of All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.

On October 31st (All Hallows Eve), children make altars to invite the spirits of dead children, angelitos, to come back and visit. November 1st, (All Saints Day) is dedicated to the celebration and visitation of the adult spirits, and November 2 (All Souls Day) is when families visit the cemetery to tidy and decorate the tombs of their relatives. It is thought that when children take part in Día de Muertos and dance with caricatures of death, that they learn to respect the fleeting nature of life. On these nights, one can find rows of food stalls and carnival attractions outside many local cemeteries, keeping the festivities alive well into the night.

Photo by Luis Avilesortiz
Family members light candles at the burial sites of loved ones. Photo by Luis Avilesortiz

Although the holiday is celebrated all over Mexico, most notably in the south and central regions, traditions are not universal and often vary from town to town.

In Ocotepec, in the State of Morelos, families open their doors to visitors in exchange for veladoras (small wax candles) – a sign of respect for the recently deceased members of the family.

The state of Michoacán is also another popular destination for travellers during Día de Muertos celebration. Festivities in the state’s rural areas cumulate in local cemeteries overflowing with colour. Indigenous communities decorate the grounds with flowers, candles and sugar skulls.

Where should you celebrate?

Mexico City: Zócalo public square

What happens here?

Festivities include a parade of people dressed as female skeletons and street parties that last all night long. If you hang about long enough, you might see a Alebrijes – bright and colourful folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures. The square is usually host to an annual altar contest – which means you’ll get to see your share of extravagant altars.

Notable mentions: The Diego Rivera Museum and the Culture Museum in Coyoacan are host to some impressive altars. Major vigils are held in some of the city’s largest cemeteries including Bosque de Chapultepec and Panteón Civil de Dolores.

Mexico City: Mixquic & Xochimilco

What happens here?

Mixquic is located southwest of Mexico city – so if you want to venture a little out of the city centre, this is the spot for you. Stalls line the streets during the days leading up to the festivals and come night time, you’ll catch a glimpse of a procession deeply rooted in local indigenous belief. A cardboard coffin winds it way through the town and leads townsfolk to the town cemetery for a candlelight vigil.

Photo by Davide Novelo
Locals pay their respects to the dead. Photo by Davide Novelo

Xochimilco, just south of Mexico City, is a mystical flowing adventure come Day of the Dead. Hop aboard a trajineras, a brightly painted covered boat (similar to a gondola), and float through the town’s network of canals, winding through chinampas (floating island gardens). It is here that you can catch a performance of the Legend of La Llorona or “the crying mother.” As legend goes, there was a mother who drowned her children and became so guilt- ridden by her actions that she committed suicide. Ever since then, her spirit can be seen on the canals of Xochimilco, crying: “ay, mis hijos…” or “Oh, my children!” in English.

Oaxaca: Oaxaca City

What happens here?

You’ll witness a very special Oaxacan tradition, the creation of sand tapestries. After the burial of a family member, a sand tapestry is made in the home of the deceased depicting various religious images. After nine days of praying, the tapestry is swept up and the sand is collected and poured onto the gave. During Día de Muertos you will see many of these tapestries along the streets, in public buildings and shops.

Notable mentions: Visit the local markets in and around festival time for a taste of the action. Which ones are worth your time?

  • The 20 de Noviembre Market or the Central de Abastos Market just south of the city center
  • Friday market in Ocotlan – famous for its ‘nieves’ (ice cream)
  • If cemeteries are more your thing, Panteon General, also known as the Panteon San Miguel and Panteón Nuevo, will offer a colourful feast for your eyes of beautifully decorated altars and candles that light up the night sky.

Michoacan: Janitzio and Patzcuaro

What happens here?

Known as the single best-known location for Day of the Dead in the entire country, you’ll have an opportunity to see the indigenous Purepecha people perform elaborate Día de Muertos rituals in the town cemetery well into the night. The coolest part? Town and local fishermen in their rowboats illuminate the night sky with torches.

Photo by Luis Avilesortiz
A local fisherman paddles his way around the coastline with a decorated boat to celebrate. Photo by Luis Avilesortiz

Aguascalientes: Aguascalientes City

What happens here?

Aguascalientes is the birthplace Jose Guadalupe Posada, the printmaker, and cartoonist who created La Calavera Catrina, the skeleton in the feathered hat synonymous Day of the Dead. It has in most recent times become the place to be for Día de Muertos, with over 200 events lined up during the festival, including a parade in honour of Posada iconic image. It is also home to the Museo Nacional de la Muerte (National Museum of Death), which houses an extensive collection of Day of the Dead artifacts and historical pieces.

Additional tips…

In order to ensure that your trip to Mexico to experience Dia de los Muertos is hiccup-free, make sure you note these essential tips and tricks:

  • Book accommodations early, hotels and hostels fill up quickly
  • Ask permission before taking photos in the cemeteries
  • Do not travel with non-authorized taxis
  • Get in the spirit by donning a traditional Mexican Day of the Dead costume and/or makeup
  • When visiting cemeteries, be respectful of the families honouring the dead
  • Plan extra time before or after the celebration to explore Mexico

Getting the “Day of the Dead” Look Right, According to a Real Makeup Artist:

Makeup artist and blogger Jen Vanderzalm offers her tips on how to achieve the perfect Dias de Meurtos look to help you celebrate the festivities in style.

Getting started…

1. First off, you’ll want a clean moisturized face and hair pulled back and out of the way. Possibly a glass of wine too if you’re like me and love drinking while getting creative. Begin by covering your face with your white makeup; you can use your fingers or a sponge to do so. Build it up if necessary and try your best to keep it even looking by adding a second layer.


2. Take your black liner and draw a circle around your eye starting with the top of your eyebrow and following your socket all the way around until it joins back up.


3. Add a pop of colour or you can keep it all black, it’s up to you!


4. Here you will want to blend the colours together a bit better. If you make a mistake, this is where the q-tips will become your best friend. Simply wipe away the mistake and just re-apply more white.


5. The hardest part has arrived, but you can do it! Take your pointy skinny brush and draw on the scalloped edges (think semi-circles) around both eyes. Remember those q-tips.


6. And now for the nose. I like to draw the upside down heart, but it can be as simple as a triangle too. Then you just have to fill it in with paint.


7. This is especially where waterproof makeup comes in handy. Start by applying a straight line down the middle of your mouth and work your way out on both sides. These are meant to represent the teeth so as you go further, follow along with your actual jawline.


8. This was my favorite part, connecting it all together. For this step, I recommend that you just follow along with your cheekbone.


9. For my own forehead details, I chose an ‘S’ for my Grandmother’s maiden name Stewart. I miss her dearly and thought of her as I drew the designs there. I used black and purple eyeliners but feel free to choose a design that represents who you will be honouring this Day of the Dead.


10. Next, I embellished my chin with a fern-type flower on it. I also filled in the scalloped edges with purple shadow. As a final touch, I wanted to use marigolds as they are a commonly used flower during Day of the Dead but I couldn’t find any, so I improvised with rose stems and secured them into my hair with bobby pins. Tada!


Required products: White face paint (or very pale foundation), black eye shadows or black face paint, black Eyeliner (the sharper and thinner or a point, the better), lip or eye pencils in vibrant colours

Required tools: clean fingers or sponges, tiny brush for small details, medium shadow brush, q-tips

Extras: Jewels or sparkles, glitter glue, eyelash glue, makeup setting spray (heat, humidity resistant), false lashes, flowers

If you’d like to check out any of my other Halloween looks please check out my InstagramFacebook and website.

Thanks so much for reading about my Day of the Dead Sugar Skull Makeup!

So what do you think? Is this the year you get reacquainted with your deceased loved ones against Mexico’s beautiful backdrop? Tell us your favourite ways to celebrate in the comments below!

After seeing La Sagrada Família on TV when she was 12, Sarah knew that one day she’d see it in person. FYI: Spain is a long way away from her home of Melbourne, Australia. Thanks to Indiana Jones, Sarah thought she was going to be an Archeologist when she grew up. She ended up living in Toronto, Canada, taking every opportunity to travel and eat fried chicken & donuts.

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