10 Traditions that make up Day of the Dead

November 1st is known throughout much of Latin America, especially in places like the Caribbean, as All Saints Day to compensate for any festivities that were skipped in the past year. Day of the Dead history is shared throughout Mexico and varies from state to state as those who celebrate honor their dead. Perhaps, the best place to head to for your first time is the Historic Center of Oaxaca. This UNESCO Human World Heritage is special for the sheer amount of evocative and rich cultures that conjoin here. There’s so much to do, from visiting vibrantly colorful markets like the Friday market in Ocotlan to following comparsas, wild and jovial night processions, that pass by vigils at various cemeteries, it’s something you’ll never forget.

Perhaps, what makes Day of the Dead so endearing for so many is that there is so much lively imagery that’s associated with it to warm and soothe the soul.

1. Dia de los Angelitos

In Mexico, the first Day of the Dead, also known as the Day of Nuestros Angelitos, or little angels, refer to the dead children whose passed on spirits are the first to arrive before the adults do a day later to visit us, as they’re quicker on their feet.

​​A cemetery filled with flowers and candles for the last day tradition during Day of the Dead

2. Ofrenda

Altars with offerings (called ofrendas) are common at the cemetery right over where the deceased lay. After all, the purpose of the Day of the Dead is to honor family members who have passed and for them to use this opportunity to ask them for their guidance by appealing to their good nature with offerings like food, drinks, items of personal significance and anything else that they might enjoy on the other side. It’s quite a sight you behold as there’s an abundance of candles and homey decoration, however, these offerings are frequently done in other public and private places as well. This event is characterized by a festive atmosphere that’s charmingly cultivated with playing musicians, tasty seasonal foods and a fair amount of alcohol to encourage positive spirits. As such, Day of the Dead traditions are close to many people’s hearts.

What ties together all the Day of the Dead celebrations is the altar that every family in Mexico set up in their homes for their dead. This private altar includes the photographs of their dead loved ones as well as all that they liked and loved when they were alive. This can include food, cigars, books, music, and clothes they used to wear. The idea is to make them comfortable and welcomed during their short visit.

​​A brightly colored ofrenda with pan de muerto, sugar skulls, marigold flowers, and candles

3. Day of the Dead Festivals!

For a more small town setting, the artist-filled town of San Miguel de Allende is an old favorite because of its festival La Calaca. It lasts four days and is organized to promote ancient traditions through celebration. It’s a beautiful place and the festivities begin at the end of October in the Main Garden where altars start to branch out and actually compete in a contest. On the Day of the Dead, there’s a parade where most people in attendance, be they from the town or are just visiting are dressed up to enjoy in the mixture of catholic and pre-hispanic culture. To give you an idea, people here celebrate the spirits of people that go as far back as 3,000 years.

A candlelight vigil with Mexican people dressed in traditional Day of the Dead wardrobe and intricately painted skull faces

4. Papel Picado

Papel picado is the flag that’s associated with the occasion and, especially at night time, really lights up a room or a whole street. Although you may not be familiar with the name, you’ve surely come across them at a Mexican restaurant or during Mexican festivities that have taken place in the fall. It’s fine color paper that has an image, or a series of images, that are associated with the Day of the Dead. Some of the most common are skeletons in jovial celebration and foods that are enjoyed.

​​Roadway paved with Papel Picado and a view of the city beyond

5. La Catrina

One of the most emblematic characters to represent this holiday is La Catrina, a classy skeletal lady that was created by Jose Guadalupe Posada in order to bring elegance and a sense of aristocracy to the celebration. Catrina comes from the word “catrin”, meaning a distinguished gentleman who is well dressed and accompanied by his partner with refined garb to compliment. Skeletal characters like these have a long history in Mexico of serving as a certain criticism over the different disparities between the classes and continue to represent the idea that we are all socially equal.

​​A women dressed as Catrina Calavera

6. Sugar Skulls

The quintessential day of the dead treat is the sugar skull that is popularly made out of chocolate. This sweet figurine often represents a person whose name is written on it. There is considerable significance in the original water and sugar based treat as it represents the merging of Pre Hispanic culture with the Spanish custom of molding.

​​Chocolate sugar skulls with green and blue icing

7. Day of the Dead food!

Some of the wide array of delicious foods that are prepared for this special time are decorated in a similar way. One of the most symbolic and popular is the sweet bread of the dead which everyone loves to eat at night with coffee or hot cocoa. One of the most succulent dishes is mole, a dark pudding-like dressing that usually bathes chicken. The truly special thing about it in Mexico is that it is prepared differently in different parts of the country which, in turn, serves as a great way to become acquainted with the varied offerings of the land. In some places, it’s sweeter, in other more herb driven. The same can be said about one of the most treasured food, the divine tamale! This corn based packed treat that is wrapped in a corn husk can be sweet or salty making it the ideal food to take on the go as you go about your day.

Soups are also a really big deal, particularly as they warm one up before heading out for night on the town. The most popular is undoubtedly Pozole, a tomatoey soup with balls of corn, onion, garlic, a delicious herb, lettuce and radish garnish and usually pulled pork. Most people like making it spicy as well as adding lemon. It fills you up and is many Mexicans´ favorite food, and with good reason. Another tasty soup is Aztec Soup and is much lighter, particularly as it is made with chicken. Most of its ingredients are the same except instead of balls of corn, tortilla bits are dropped in.

​​Day of the Dead food with mole, tamales, tortillas, and bread

8. Alebrijes

In many major cities, a festival takes place in the most important streets, usually punctuated by a parade with many beautifully decorated floats that are often like floating clouds of flowers with specific themes. In Mexico City, the place to head to is the city center, el Zócalo, by way of the broad Reforma Avenue where you’ll be joined by throngs of revelers in Day of the dead make-up.

As you make your way, you will be greeted by large mystical colorful looking creatures the size of dinosaurs that are called Alebrijes. They’re often a conglomeration of characteristics from a bunch of different animals, like a large lizard with antlers and insect wings. In Mexico, they’re considered the creatures of our dreams and even of the realm of the dead.

Perhaps the most traditional celebration takes place in Mixquic, a town located in the south east side of Mexico City. The heart of the celebration happens on the night of November 1st at San Andres Mixquic cemetery where all the local families get together amid lit candles, adornments and food laid on the tombs to wait for their dead to arrive.

​​A constructed alebrije with its mouth open and tongue sticking out

Photo credit: Eneas - ​​Parade with people holding up alebrijes in a street

9. Oil Cloths

Classical imagery that many Mexicans associate with the Day of the Dead may be found in the warm almost pastel-like colors of the traditional oilcloths. The enchanting thing about them is that, thanks to their dark backdrop contrasting with the vibrant colors usually denoting natural elements, they set the scene at night time quite intimately. It carries with it a lot of significance particularly as it is, in fact, a reference to the renowned Frida Kahlo who would don these oilcloths as a tribute to Tehuana women. These women from Tehuantepec are admired for their strength in both in times of hardship and of festivity.

​​Traditional pattern of oil cloth with green background and a variety color of flowers

10. Day of the Dead Flower (Marigold)

The Day of Dead wouldn’t be nearly as evocative if it weren’t for the proliferated adornment that blossoming flowers like Cempasuchitl provide to altars and to private and public spaces such as stores, governmental buildings and parks. They give off a distinctive sweet aroma that embraces everyone. The petals of this flower are laid out as walkways for the dead to find their way on earth so they may be reunited with their loved ones.

​​A field of yellow and orange marigold flowers in bloom

​​A grave covered in bright orange marigold petals

Traditions for the departed souls

All in all, the Day of the Dead is a way of maintaining a healthy and intimate relationship with the unknown and is not only an occasion for festivities but also for a profound recollection of those who died and and invitation to reflect on life and death.