When, Where & How to Celebrate Dia de Los Muertos Festival in Mexico in 2019

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Ever wondered what the Dia de Los Muertos festival is all about? Some Mexican Day of the Dead traditions may overlap with the Halloween holiday in the United States. But Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico has its own meaning and rituals, which are quite different from its neighbors north of the border. Read on to learn some real Day of the Dead facts, and see how, why and where to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico.

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When, Where & How to Celebrate Dia de Los Muertos Festival in Mexico

I knew that I would love seeing Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico, and after living in Mexico for two years, it became one of my favorite holidays. Not just my favorite Mexican holidays, but all holidays. Now that we’re back in Japan, I’m not only missing Mexican food, but also Mexican traditions like Dia de Muertos.

Thanks to the emphasis on skulls and graveyards, Dia de Los Muertos is often perceived as dark and scary. Yet the real meaning of the holiday and Dia de Los Muertos traditions are all about a celebration of life and family. In this photo essay, I’ll lay out what Dia de Los Muertos means to Mexicans and show you a little of what it was like to see Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico.

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What Does Dia de Los Muertos Mean?

dia de los muertos festival 2019 - ofrenda altars Day of the dead symbols

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dia de los muertos festival 2019 traditions ofrendas day of the dead 2019 altars

Dia de Los Muertos literally means “Day of the Dead.” It’s sometimes written as “Dia de Muertos” (without the “Los”), which was the original name. Dia de Muertos has its roots in Precolombian societies like the Aztecs, although the Mayans have their own traditions as well. Originally celebrated in early summer, the Dia de Los Muertos traditions changed over time. Gradually, it moved to October/November as it blended with Catholic beliefs and the European rituals around All Souls’ Day. Dia de Muertos in Mexico is all about celebrating friends and family who have passed away. Old beliefs are that the dead return to our world during this time, and so families welcome them back with offerings and celebrations.

Why Celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico?

I love Halloween, but now love Day of the Dead in Mexico even more. Sure, some of the spooky elements of Halloween seem to have parallels in Day of the Dead traditions. Yet Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico is a happy occasion. Yes, there are skulls and skeletons everywhere, and you go to visit graves at night. Similarities exist, but Mexican Day of the Dead feels more like a family reunion than a Creepshow.

When is Day of the Dead in Mexico?

Dia de los muertos festival in mexico 2019

Day of the Dead in Mexico is celebrated on November 1st (All Saint’s Day) and November 2nd (All Soul’s Day). Originally, the 1st was in honor of children who have died. The following day was for adults and is a National holiday is Mexico.

What Other Countries Celebrate Dia de Los Muertos?

The Day of the Dead festival is mostly considered a Mexican Holiday. However, you’ll find various versions of Dia de Muertos in many Latin American countries and anywhere there’s a Mexican population. For example, people have similar Dia de Los Muertos traditions in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Guatemala. In fact, in Guatemala, the day of the dead traditions include flying massive incredibly ornate kites. Bolivians have their own Day of the Dead in traditions as well but in May.

While not specifically Halloween or Day of the Dead, many countries and regions have similarly themed traditions. For example, in Europe, the origins of Hallow’s Eve came at the end of the harvest season. In Asia, Japan has Obon in the summer and Taiwan considers the time the Lunar Calendar time around August and September to be Ghost Month. In both of these, traditional beliefs are that the dead return to the land of the living. Much is made about pleasing the ghosts during this time and staying away from any trouble with them. For example, I can tell you from personal experience that it would be very hard to get a typical Taiwanese person to go swimming with you during ghost month. They believe that spirits of those who drowned might keep you in the water with them. In contracts, Day of the Dead in Mexico is less about scares and fear and more about love and family.

Day of the Dead Symbols

There are many important traditions associated with Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico. Where Halloween is all about pumpkins and candy, Mexican Day of the Dead symbols often has a deeper meaning. Here are a few of the most common Day of the Dead symbols.

Dia de Los Muertos Catrina – Day of the Dead Symbols

Dia de los muertos catrina 2019

Possibly the most famous Dia de Los Muertos symbol is La Catrina. This is usually portrayed as a female skeleton decked out in a fancy dress and sunhat festooned with flowers. The origins of the Dia de Los Muertos Catrina go back to the Aztecs, who worshiped Mictlāntēcutli, a goddess of death. Today’s fancy-dressed version of the Dia de Los Muertos catrina originates in a political cartoon from the early 20th Century.

Skulls and skeletons are often used as Dia de Los Muertos symbols and in other Mexican art to remind people of their own mortality. The Dia de Los Muertos Catrina is possibly the most famous use of such imagery. One of the most famous Dia de Los Muertos Catrina can be seen in Mexico City at the Diego Rivera Mural Museum. Here you’ll find one of Rivera’s most famous works: Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda. Right in the center of this 15-meter mural is a Catrina standing next to Frida Kahlo.

Marigolds: Day of the Dead Flowers

marigolds at market day of the dead flowers

dia de los muertos flowers - day of the dead 2019

dia de los muertos flowers - day of the dead in mexico 2019

The Mexican Marigold is one of the most important Day of the Dead symbols. Tradition has it that their scent and bright orange color help guide the dead to and from the underworld. In the weeks before Dia de Muertos, local markets stock plenty of fresh marigolds to decorate homes, doorways, and altars (more on this later). Marigolds are even called “flower of the dead” (Flor de Muertos) today. Other commonly-used Day of the Dead flowers are cockscomb (red), gladiolus (purple) and chrysanthemums.

Sugar Skulls: Sweet Day of the Dead Symbols

traditional dia de los muertos 2019 sugar skulls day of the dead symbols

Like Halloween in the United States, there is plenty of candy and sugar involved in the Dia de Los Muertos festival. Only with Day of the Dead candy, you’re going to see lots of skull and skeleton imagery. You’ll find skulls, skeletons, and coffins made of chocolate, marzipan, and other sweetness. They come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors. Certainly my girl’s favorite Day of the Dead symbol.

Butterflies

The black-and-orange Monarch butterflies are also important Day of the Dead symbols. Tradition has it that butterflies carry the souls of the dead. This may originate in the fact that millions of these butterflies appear in Mexico in late fall around November first. In fact, one of the most amazing things to do in Mexico is to visit the El Rosario Nature Reserve and Butterfly Sanctuary. Here you’ll see over a hundred million of these butterflies in one place. You read that tight. 

See the Butterfly Migration for Yourself

Other Dia de Los Muertos Traditions

The items above are some of the most powerful Day of the Dead symbols, but not the only ones. There are many more Day of the Dead symbols and rituals you may encounter if you see the Dia de Los Muertos Festival in Mexico with your own eyes.

Dia de Los Muertos Face Painting

Dia de los muertos face painting

Many people really get into the spirit of the holiday with Dia de Los Muertos face painting. In most cities in Mexico, you can find people doing Dia de Los Muertos face painting in homes, at parks, and on sidewalks. Some do it for free, while most places charge. You can often choose the quality of Dia de Los Muertos face painting by simply planning ahead and considering your budget. For example, our first Dia de Los Muertos festival was in Merida, and we simply had it done on the street fairly cheaply. The quality of the makeup and the skills of the person doing it reflected the price we paid. In contrast, the following year we saw Dia de Los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. There I sought out a professional makeup artist to do the girl’s makeup, and it was incredible.

Visiting Graveyards

cemetary Day of the dead symbols 2019

The Dia de Los Muertos festival is all about reuniting with friends and relatives who have passed on. Naturally part of the tradition is visiting their graves. Here you’ll find the graves cleaned up and covered with flower petals and other decorations. You’ll also see items left for the dead that they loved in life. For example, I saw graves with specific candy bars, sodas, and brands of tequila on them.

Build Ofrendas (Dia de Los Muertos Altars)

ofrenda altars Day of the dead symbols - dia de los muertos festival 2019

dia de los muertos traditions ofrendas altars

dia de los muertos festival altars

ofrenda altars Day of the dead symbols

An ofrenda is an altar usually placed in one’s home or business where you put the pictures of deceased loved one to return to. Most ofrendas are decorated with marigolds and candles. You’ll also find the favorite foods of those who have passed. Most of these Day of the Dead symbols are personal, but occasionally they are political. For example, the one you see above with the mannequin next to a typewriter? This Dia de Los Muertos altar was about the deaths of reporters in Mexico.

Write Calavera Poems

Another common Day of the Dead tradition is the Calaveras Poem. Written only during Dia de Los Muertos season, these poems satirize the living as if they were already dead. Our daughter was attending a local Mexican school in San Miguel de Allende during Dia de Los Muertos time and her entire class wrote them. There are local and even national contests to see whose are best.

Clean with Salt & Copal

During Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico, families clean their houses thoroughly in anticipation of their deceased relatives’ upcoming visit. In addition to detergent and a little elbow grease, salt is used to purify the area. Some traditional Mexican families might also use copal. Copal is a tree resin that’s made into incense and is believed to help purify a home of evil.

Traditional Dia de Los Muertos Food

The most common Dia de Los Muertos food you’ll see around is pan de muerto, a sweetened bread with a cross shape along the top. Other traditional Dia de Los Muertos foods are things that you can find year-round. For example, many families eat tamales and drink atole, a viscous beverage made from corn. You’ll also see lots of mole negro, one of the many forms of mole: a rich and spicy sauce used in a myriad of recipes across the country.

Where to See Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico

During our two years in Mexico, we saw the Dia de Los Muertos festival in two very different locations. First, we saw Day of the Dead in Merida, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The following year we saw Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende.

Merida, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Day of the dead symbols Dia de Los muertos Yucatan

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day of the dead in merida traditional dance

Merida is the capital of the Yucatan Peninsula, and Mayan culture is still very strong here. For example, did you know that the Maya language is still spoken commonly here? You’ll hear Mayan words pop up in everyday speech, as well. The Mayan version of Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, which translates to “Food for the Souls.” People celebrate Hanal Pixán in much the same way Mexico, in general, celebrates Dia de Los Muertos. There are altars, skulls, face makeup and other Day of the Dead symbols. The graves are decorated, too. But on the evening of October 31st, there is a parade from the main graveyard into the center of town. This is called Paseo de las Animas, which means “Walk of Souls.”

Day of the dead symbols Dia de Los muertos face painting

Mexican Dia de los muertos face painting

Mexican Dia de los muertos festival in the yucatan

For Dia de Los Muertos in Merida, we had our faces painted on the street. It wasn’t the best job, but quick and fun. Keiko’s makeup was hilariously bad. She looked like a drunk panda or some kind of melted Beetlejuice. The parade was impressive, and there are lots of free dance performances at the Zocalo, the open square in the center of downtown. You can see free dance performances in Merida at different places and times every week of the year. However, during Dia de Los Muertos, they were especially powerful. Another thing that made the Dia de Los Muertos festival in Merida special was that at last, the weather had begun to cool down. Keep in mind that the Yucatan Peninsula. With its position by the Caribbean, the entire Yucatan is crazy hot and humid most of the year. By late October is the weather becomes more tolerable.

San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico

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traditional dia de los muertos fin san miguel de allende mexico

traditional dia de los muertos fin san miguel de allende mexico

The following year, we were living in San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico’s central highlands. San Miguel de Allende is just about as far from the ocean as you can get in Mexico. It’s high desert here, at an elevation higher than Denver, Colorado, the “Mile-High City.” Temperatures are cool and comfortable here, which is nice because you don’t have to worry about sweating your makeup off within an hour.

For Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, we tried the traditional Dia de Muertos makeup twice. On the first day, we went to a nearby street vendor and paid a small amount. Then for the next day, I found a hair and nail salon that had a higher level of service. I paid more, and it took longer, but it was totally worth it. We loved the Dia de Muertos ofrendas in San Miguel, as well as the family atmosphere. For example, we saw school kids and local musicians performing in various neighborhoods. We also loved the cemetery, with its graves covered in marigold and other flowers. Downtown was a more raucous party scene, with lots of gringos (both tourists and residents) living it up at the Jardin in front of the Parroquia Cathedral. Lots of Mexican tourists as well.

Other Places to see Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico

dia de los muertos in mexico city

We’ve seen the Dia de Los Muertos Festival in Merida and San Miguel de Allende, but these are not the only places to dee Day of the Dead in Mexico. Here are a few other popular suggestions.

Day of the Dead in Mexico City

The capital is an incredible place to experience the Dia de Los Muertos festival. There are incredible events and plenty of spectacle. Expect parades and neighborhood decorated with all the Day of the Dead symbols. 

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Mexico’s Oaxaca state is one of the most vibrant and culturally diverse places in the country…if not the world. They are at least 16 main indigenous languages spoken by millions of people, along with regional dialects that I won’t claim to know much about. Oaxaca is also diverse geographically. Many of the indigenous groups living in the mountainous regions, while beautiful beach towns dot the Pacific coast. Oaxaca follows many of the Dia de Los Muertos festival traditions, but with their own twist. For example, where Day of the Dead altars in San Miguel de Allende use rice, beans, and grains in their mosaic-like imagery. In different parts of Oaxaca, you’ll see intricate sand motifs.

Day of the Dead in Michoacan

One of the reasons many people want to experience Day of the Dead in Michoacan is that the region sticks to the old traditions in ways may parts of Mexico no longer do. For example, the cemeteries are busy all night, with entire families gathered around the graves and talking to the deceased as if they’re sitting right there with them. 

Have You Seen the Dia de Los Muertos Festival?

dis de los muertos festival 2019  merida traditional dance

This little breakdown of Day of the Dead symbols is far from complete. After all, we’ve only seen the Dia de Los Muertos festival twice, and really want to experience it more in years to come. Have you seen the Day of the Dead in Mexico? Gave you done Dia de Los Muertos face painting? Where would you suggest seeing Dia de Los Muertos traditions? What Day of the Dead symbols did I leave out? 

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Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. This means, at no extra cost to you, we might receive a small commission if you book a tour or hotel in Mexico through our links. My opinions are my own and I only recommend places/services that I believe will genuinely help you enjoy the Dia de Los Muertos festival in Mexico. 

Photo Credits via Creative Commons CC-BY or other Royalty-free image sites. Some images may have been altered slightly via cropping or color enhancement: #6, #64

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