Day of the Dead is one of the most iconic Mexican holidays and traditions, and while you can probably recognize the traditional Day of the Dead art, few people know much of the history behind the holiday. Understanding these Day of the Dead traditions will enrich your appreciation of Mexican culture, and when you know when Day of the Dead is, you’ll be ready to enjoy the celebrations.
The Day of the Dead traditions stem from Aztec beliefs and harvest celebrations. Today, the holiday is focused around remembering and honoring loved ones who have passed away. When it comes to how Day of the Dead is celebrated, it’s not a day of mourning. Instead, it’s a time for families to come together for a warm and colorful celebration.
Day of the Dead lines up with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, and when you look up when Day of the Dead is, you’ll see that it falls on both November 1 and 2. The first day is set aside for children who have passed away, a group who is believed to have a special place in heaven and are referred to as little angels or “angelitos.” The second is for all adults.
In the days leading up to November 1 and 2, towns will begin to fill with colorful orange marigold flowers that light the path for departed souls to return for the celebrations. Families will also start to prepare altars in memory of those who have died, placing water and treats, like playing cards, packs of cigarettes, and candy, on the altars beside their loved ones’ photos. The other important part of how Day of the Dead is celebrated takes place in cemetaries. Families clean off grave sites, place flowers, and light candles while sharing stories of those who have passed away. Coming together and being a part of what happens on the Day of the Dead is important to families in Mexico and from the country.
Like other Mexican holidays and traditions, the traditional Day of the Dead art is unique and colorful. Altars, or ofrendas, are an important part of what happens on the Day of the Dead, and for most families, they become true works of art with traditional decorations. Decorating and eating calaveras, traditional skulls made of candy, is also one of the popular things to do on Day of the Dead, and many families include them on their altars. One of the other fun Day of the Dead traditions is dressing up as a catrina, a skeleton dressed up in Victorian clothing, reminding us that no matter who we are, we’re all the same underneath. Many of these costumes are elaborate with professional makeup. Together, the altars, calaveras, and catrinas make up some of the most iconic Mexican art.
In addition to sweet skulls made out of sugar or chocolate, there’s a special pastry made just for this holiday: pan de muerto. This fluffy dough is flavored with orange water and coated in butter and sugar. Rolled dough is placed on top in the form of bones, and finding these special treats is one of the best things to do on Day of the Dead. Pair your pan de muerto with traditional Mexican hot chocolate.
From putting out photos of loved ones to eating pan de muerto, when you learn about how Day of the Dead is celebrated, you’ll see that it’s a sweet and special holiday, not one full of gloom and sorrow. Being a part of these things to do on Day of the Dead will give you a new appreciation for Mexican culture.