Mexican Traditions

Mexican Day of the Dead

Valerie Walawender, M.A.
(all photos and text by Valerie Walawender)

The Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) (November 1st and 2nd) is a time when families welcome their dead back into their homes with personalized private altars dedicated to the memory of the deceased. Families also decorate the graves of their loved ones with abundant displays of brightly colored flowers, such as chrysanthemums. Marigolds, in particular, are believed to attract the souls of the deceased. Small candles, known as veladoras, are lit and offerings of food and beverages also adorn the gravesite. This is not eaten, as it is for the deceased. Families visit the graves and listen to lively music while they socialize with other family, friends, and neighbors. In some parts of Mexico, people spend all night beside the graves of their deceased loved ones. A sumptuous picnic of tamales (meats in spicy sauces), chocolate beverages, confections in skull or animal shapes, and “pan de muerto” (“bread of the dead”) is enjoyed. Friends and kin give each other gifts of sugar skeletons or other articles with a death motif. The artist Jose Guadalue Posada created a figure of an upper class Mexican female skeleton, he called “calaverra de la catrina” (Calavera of the female dandy). Catrina figures have become a popular icon of modern day celebrations.

The celebrants believe the souls of the departed return and are all around them. The dead are remembered with tender and amusing anecdotes. The ritual is celebrated in distinct ways in various regions. In rural Mexico, families bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila for deceased adults. In more urban settings, the holiday usually has less religious and cultural significance. In some places, pillows and blankets are left at the gravesite so the deceased can rest after their long journey. Traditionally, deceased children are remembered during the first day of the observance, November 1st, “Día de los Angelitos” (Day of the Little Angels). Adults are remembered the next day. In some places, the path from the street to the altar is sprinkled with petals to help guide the soul to its altar. Photos, incense, religious statues and pictures, and favorite belongings of the dead are placed on home altars as well as the gravesite. This is done to encourage that the souls of the dead return and join in the remembrance. Because of the tender communal atmosphere, the ritual has a festive, pleasant feeling despite the sad associations. This good-natured and significant social ritual in the company of the living and the dead recognizes the cycle of life and death.

The Day of the Dead  traces back at least 3,000 years to the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations. It was believed that the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl (“Lady of the Dead”) died at birth. Because of this, Mictecacihuatl ruled over the Aztec month, Miccailhuitantli, dedicated to children and the dead. In the Aztec calendar, the ritual fell in the Gregorian calendar month of August. About 500 years ago during colonization, Spanish priests moved the celebration date to coincide with the Christian holiday, “All Hallows Eve” October 31st; All Saints Day, November 1st; and  “All Saints Day,” November 2nd. As a result, Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead during the first two days of November.

Day of the Dead festivities have spread around the world. Different parts of theU.S., Europe, Latin America,Haiti, andNew Zealand, all have unique methods of celebrating the ritual. Guatemalan celebrants construct giant kites along with visiting loved ones’ gravesites. In Haiti, loud drums and music are played all night long at cemeteries. In Tucson, Arizona, people wear masks, carry signs honoring the dead, and place written prayers in urns, to be later burned.


Conversations with the Artists 

Sebastania Salazar, Alicia Salazar, Porfirio Vega,
and Thomasa H.

“(In the Day of the Dead Celebration), the flowers used at our altars are marigolds. We believe those flowers attract the souls of our deceased loved ones. We want them to join us in the celebration. The last day of October, the 31st, we prepare our altar. We start decorating that afternoon. We put fruit with the stems and leaves still attached, tamales and our other food out that evening. We put out their (the deceased) favorite foods and drinks, beer, pop.”

“On November 1st we go to the cemetery early in the morning at 6:00 or 8:00 We light our candles and bring holy water and flowers.     

We take food to eat while we’re there. About 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. we leave the cemetery and go home. That’s when we start preparing the food for the next day. After we’re done cooking, we remove the food we left for the (deceased) children. At night we put food out for the following day for (deceased) adults.

      On the 2nd of November, those who live far away go to the cemetery at 5 a.m. Those who live close go at 6:00 a.m., usually all of the family. The candles are tall candles. Once the candle starts coming down, somebody always has to be there to light it, if it blows out . . . They are coffee colored. Once those days are over, we don’t burn those candles again. The candle makers . . . specially order the wax that is coffee colored . . . The bread (“Bread of the Dead”) is made in different shapes: saints, animals . . .) It is a sweet bread that is not available here. They make it 15 or 20 days before (the holiday) in Mexico.

Once we’re there (at the cemetery) , we celebrate how we want. We might play music. There’s a lot of places that do it differently . . .

On that day, some people stay home cooking, instead of going to the cemetery. All the family members go except the ones who stay home cooking. While we’re at the cemetery, we eat at the cemetery at noon. The priest comes to the cemetery and has a mass (for) all the families that are there. If you want a private mass, you can ask the priest to say mass at that certain grave site. Two years ago I went and there was a mariachi band. If you ask them to sing a song that the deceased might have liked, the band will play it. We’re there till 3:00 or 4:00 that afternoon. Then we go to a family member’s home. We eat together.”






“On the first day, (November 1st for deceased children) the food that is prepared for the altar includes “frijoles” (beans), “pollo” (chicken) broth, fruits, “huevo” (juice), “miel” (honey), “chayotes” (vegetables), “calabassa” (pumpkin), bread (Day of the Dead bread), cookies and candy. It is placed on the altar. All of a sudden, it disappears (chuckle). . . (be cause the living children of the family eat it).The food that is prepared for the deceased adults on November 2nd includes mole and tamales.”


 “For the last day, November 2nd, we take a statue of St. Anuna from the church to the cemetery. St. Anuna is “Santo Corozon” in Spanish, which means “heart.” We put a crucifix at the tomb. Sometimes we put a picture of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” or another saint.

Here we don’t go to the extreme we do in Mexico. We can’t decorate the way we want to. The stuff we use we can’t find here. We want to continue (our “Day of the Dead” tradition) for our children and to remember our deceased family. Family members who live here travel to Mexico just to celebrate this tradition.”


calacas – colloquial term for skeleton; skull masks worn to honor dead relatives.

calaveras – a word meaning “skulls”; refers to short poems

cempasúchil – orange marigolds used on altars

“flor le muerto” – flower of the dead, another name  for marigolds. These flowers are thought to attract the souls of the dead.

ofrenda – offerings of food, drink and trinkets welcome the deceased; Believed that spirits of the deceased eat the spiritual essence of the ofrendas.


Salvador, R. J. “What do Mexicans Celebrate on the Day of the Dead?” Death, Value and Meaning Series: Death and Bereavement in the Americas Vol. II. Morgan, J.D. and P. Laungani (eds.) Amityville, NY, 2003. pp. 75-76

Brandes, Stanley. “The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity” Journal of American Folklore, 1998. pp. 359-80.

Brandes, Stanley. “Iconography in Mexico’s Day of the Dead”  Ethnohistory 45.2, 1998. pp. 181-218

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