Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday that honors family members and loved ones who have passed onto the afterlife. This holiday originated several thousand years ago; it is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Día de los Muertos invites the deceased to return to the land of the living and reunite with their families for a celebration. Families create altars with ofrendas (offerings) and invite their departed family members to journey back to the land of the living.
There are many areas of Mexico where you can celebrate this joyous and mystical holiday. We’ve rounded up everything there is to know about celebrating Día de los Muertos, including which Mexican cities host the best celebrations.
When is Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos celebrated?
Día de los Muertos takes place over two days, and each day honors and celebrates the deceased.
Starting at midnight on November 1st, Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) honors all the child spirits who have passed onto the afterlife. Families create an altar with their child’s favorite toys and treats. The children’s names are usually written on a sugar skull, a common snack eaten during Día de los Muertos.
On November 2nd at midnight, families celebrate Día de los Fieles Difuntos (All Souls Day), which honors the spirits of departed adults. Families gather to play games, dance, and toast with mezcal. Families will create altars to welcome their departed loved ones back to the land of the living.
At noon on November 2nd, Día de los Muertos and the spirits of all the dead are celebrated. This is the grand finale and public celebration of Día de los Muertos. Many people dress up with Calavera (skeleton) painted faces and dance in a joyous parade. At this time, families will also visit the cemetery to decorate grave sites with sugar skulls, gifts, and marigold flowers.
How to celebrate Día de los Muertos
During Día de los Muertos, families create altars for their loved ones with ofrendas or offerings. These altars are not meant for worshipping but instead hold gifts, family photos, food, and water. The food and drinks are meant to “revive” the dead after the long journey back to the land of the living. The altars hold a candle for every departed family member along with precious possessions belonging to the dead.
Marigolds are a common symbol and gift during Día de los Muertos, as many families decorate their altars with marigolds. Some may even scatter petals from the altar to the gravesite to create a path for souls to return. Many gravesites will also have copal incense burning, which purifies the air around the altar.
Calaveras, or skulls, are a common symbol seen in Día de los Muertos celebrations. The tradition is heavily influenced by Mexican artist, José Guadalupe Posada, who created the famous illustration of La Calavera Catrina, a female skeleton wearing a plumed hat. Posada lived from 1852-1913, and his illustrations were a political satire of Mexican high society. His illustrations were also accompanied by witty poems, known as literary calaveras. After his death, his La Calavera Catrina became the unofficial symbol of the holiday.
Those who celebrate Día de los Muertos believe that the spirits get hungry and thirsty on their journey back from the spirit world. It’s very common for families to leave ofrendas of food on their altar to entice their loved ones to return.
Some of the most common food offerings include Pan de Muerto, or bread of the dead, a traditional Mexican pastry. It’s a sweet bread-like pan dulce decorated with skulls and a circle of bones to represent the circle of life.
Sugar skulls are also very common in celebrations. Many sugar skulls will be put on altars decorated with the name of the departed family member.
Día de los Muertos would be incomplete without Calavera Catrina costumes and parades. Many family members dress up as Calavera Catrina and paint their faces to resemble skulls. They’ll also wear noisemakers and shells to add to the merriness and rouse the dead to join the celebration.
Five of the best Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico
Probably one of the most well-known and largest Día de los Muertos celebrations occurs in Mexico City. The capital city held its first parade in 2016 and today, more than 2.5 million tourists and locals flock to the celebration yearly. The parade consists of Calavera Catrinas dancing in the street, musical entertainers, and giant floats. The joyful energy can be felt on every block of Mexico City.
Pátzcuaro is 225 miles west of Mexico City and has one of the most authentic Día de los Muertos celebrations. The local people gather in canoes with a single candle on each bow and travel to a small island named Janitzio. On the island, an all-night vigil takes place in an indigenous cemetery.
One of the most interesting celebrations takes place in Tuxtepec. It’s a small city in the Oaxaca state known for its handmade sawdust rugs. Locals create these rugs with colored sawdust, pine needles, flower petals, and other found local materials. These sawdust rugs are created for important cultural processions. Family members enter their sawdust rugs in a yearly contest during Día de los Muertos.
Aguascalientes is the birthplace of the illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. This is one of the largest celebrations since it takes place over an entire week and is known as the Festival de Calaveras (Festival of Skulls). The week ends with a final, grand parade along Avenida Madero, a historic street in the city’s center.
Universidad de Guanajuato allows their students to participate in their own Día de los Muertos celebrations. Students help build a large and stunning altar that honors their university’s academic predecessors. The altar is a beautiful sight to behold, especially when night falls and all the candles are lit. Thousands of tourists travel to this beautiful celebration each November.
If you can’t get to Mexico this year to celebrate with family and friends, there are many cities in the U.S. that also hold Día de los Muertos celebrations. Plus, if you want to send money to family and friends in Mexico to support and be a part of their celebrations, download Western Union’s app to send a money transfer quickly and reliably.