The Day of the Dead in Mexico – Alive with Tradition

Mexico City (AP) – The annual celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico is a sensory extravaganza, marked by the fragrant aroma of cempasuchil flowers and copal incense. The occasion is a vivid tapestry of flavors, sounds, and colors, with photographs, candles, and music adorning the landscape, as skilled artisans meticulously craft altars to pay homage to their forebears.

Celebration of the day of the dead in Mexico

While this tradition, deeply rooted in pre-Hispanic cultures, may seem intangible, it engages all the senses. Even for individuals like Gerardo Ramírez, whose eyesight has waned over the years, the essence of the Day of the Dead can be encapsulated in a single phrase: “You honor people, you connect with the past.”

What is the day of the dead in Mexico?

The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) in Mexico is a traditional Mexican holiday that honors deceased loved ones and celebrates the continuity of life. It typically takes place from October 31st to November 2nd, coinciding with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd).

Let’s have a look at how to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Key aspects of the Day of the Dead in Mexico include:

  1. Altars (Ofrendas): Families create elaborate altars in their homes or at cemeteries to honor and remember their deceased relatives. These altars are adorned with photographs of the deceased, their favorite foods and beverages, marigold flowers (cempasúchil), candles, sugar skulls (calaveras de azúcar), and decorative items.
  2. Marigold Flowers and Copal Incense: The fragrance of marigold flowers and copal incense is believed to guide the spirits of the dead back to the world of the living. Marigolds are often used to create colorful paths leading to the altars.
  3. Food Offerings: Traditional foods, especially Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead bread), are placed on the altars as offerings for the departed. Families also prepare the deceased’s favorite dishes and beverages. It is believed that the spirits consume the essence of the food.
  4. Calaveras and Calacas: Calaveras are whimsical and artistic representations of skulls and skeletons. These are often created in various forms, including sugar skulls, as a symbol of the cycle of life and death. Calacas are dressed-up skeleton figurines that are also part of the festivities.
  5. Music and Dancing: Music plays a significant role in the celebration. In some regions, mariachi bands or other musicians may perform at cemeteries or homes. It is common for families to listen to the deceased’s favorite music and even dance in their honor.
  6. Candlelight: Candles are lit to help guide the spirits and create a warm and inviting atmosphere at the altars.
  7. Visits to Cemeteries: Families often visit the graves of their loved ones, where they clean and decorate the tombstones and spend time in remembrance. This is a time for reflection, prayer, and storytelling about the departed.
  8. Papel Picado: Elaborate, colorful paper cutouts known as “papel picado” are used to decorate the altars and cemeteries. These intricate designs often feature skull and skeleton motifs.
  9. Symbolism: The holiday combines indigenous Mexican beliefs with Catholicism. It is a way to remember and celebrate the lives of those who have passed away while also acknowledging death as a natural part of life. The sugar skulls often have the names of the deceased written on them.

The Day of the Dead is not a somber or mournful occasion but rather a joyful and festive celebration of life and death. It is a time for families to come together, share stories, and honor their ancestors while keeping their memory alive. The holiday has been recognized as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and is celebrated in various forms in other countries as well.

When is the day of the dead in Mexico?

On Wednesday, Google Doodle celebrated Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, also recognized as the Day of the Dead, a Mexican observance spanning from November 1 to November 2.

Several rituals are enacted on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, including the creation of colorful ofrendas (altars) adorned with photographs and favorite foods of the deceased, the use of marigold flowers and copal incense to guide spirits, and the incorporation of Calaveras (skull and skeleton symbolism), music, and dancing to honor and remember loved ones who have passed on.


Two scents play a crucial role in guiding departed souls from the underworld to the world of the living: cempasúchil, a marigold variety whose Náhuatl name translates to “flower of 20 petals,” and copal resin, burned as an offering on altars.

Verenice Arenazas, a young woman who left her HR job to manage her family’s traditional flower field, emphasizes the potent aroma of native cempasúchil, saying, “As soon as you move it, it tells you, ‘Here I am, look at me.'” This year, Arenazas’ family produced 17,000 cempasúchil plants in Xochimilco, a famous canal-laden district in Mexico City. They cultivate two types of cempasúchil, one from seeds selected for their intense fragrance and the other through genetic modification, both of which are nearly sold out.

Arenazas notes that these flowers exude the fragrance of “sweet, fresh, honest work” by dedicated farmers, as well as a sense of “Mexican pride.”


In the traditional altars dedicated to honoring the deceased, food symbolizes the nurturing essence of Mother Earth. Even the sweetest bread, flavored with orange blossom, has an intriguing history. According to researchers at the Mexican School of Gastronomy, the dough was once prepared by combining honey and human blood as an offering to the gods.

Another perspective suggests that Spanish colonizers, alarmed by the practice of human sacrifices in Mexico, created bread dipped in sugar and painted it red, symbolizing a heart.

Modern altars reserve a special place for the favorite food and drink of the departed, as Gerardo Ramírez elucidates, “The offering loses flavor because the dead actually come back; what they eat is the essence.” He recalls a touching childhood memory of his family placing his deceased uncle’s body on the dining table until the coffin arrived, with the entire family sitting down to eat in his honor.


Creating an altar is a labor of love for many Mexicans, with a focus on the tactile experience. “To feel the softness of the flowers, where you put the food, all the textures,” Ramírez explains, “It’s an explosion of sensations.”

Altars host an array of handmade crafts, from papier-mâché skeletons to alebrijes (fantastical animal figures), but “papel picado” – intricately cut colored paper – is an essential element. In some workshops, like Yuriria Torres’ studio south of Mexico City, “papel picado” is still crafted with traditional tools, forsaking stencils or laser cutters.

Some trace Torres’ art back to the amate tree bark sheets used as paper by pre-Hispanic communities, even though the Indigenous predecessors were not dyed. Others contend that the meticulous cuttings have their origins in China and were brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Regardless of their origins, researchers agree that “papel picado” symbolizes the connection between life and death, often depicting scenes of skulls and skeletons engaged in lively activities.


While older generations may remember the Day of the Dead as a quiet time filled with prayers, today, mariachi music can be heard echoing through cemeteries adorned with colorful decorations.

Jose García, a 60-year-old shoe shiner from San Antonio Pueblo Nuevo, a township located 90 miles west of Mexico City, mentions that those with the means hire musicians to join them at the cemetery, raising a toast to their departed loved ones and playing their favorite tunes. However, it’s not just an experience for the wealthy; some people bring their own recordings or musical instruments to create a musical tribute.


The Day of the Dead is a visual spectacle in Mexico, representing a celebration of cultural syncretism while primarily serving as a means to ensure that the memories of the departed remain vibrant. Portraits of loved ones who have passed away occupy a central place on the altars, creating a colorful tableau that incorporates the vibrant orange of cempasúchil, the dark hues of the underworld, the purple of the Catholic faith, red for warriors, and white for children.

This act of remembrance is not solely individual; it’s a collective experience that extends beyond personal boundaries. Some altars, such as those found at the country’s leading public university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, pay tribute to deceased students and victims of international conflicts like the Israel-Hamas war. In other cases, remembrance takes on an institutional dimension, such as the grand offering at the capital’s Zócalo Square, dedicated to the revolutionary Pancho Villa on the centenary of his death.

Beyond the visual spectacle, the heart of the celebration lies in the act of “embracing” the offering, forging a connection with the past that transcends the limitations of the senses, as emphasized by Gerardo Ramírez. “It’s not something they explain to you,” he remarks, “From the moment you are born and experience the celebration, it’s in your DNA.”

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