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Exploring the Traditions of Mexico's Day of the Dead

DESTINATION | Published on 11/10/2018
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Dia de Muertos is perhaps the most well-known Mexican holiday with its vibrant colors and elaborate celebrations. There are many Mexican traditions tied to the Day of the Dead festival, and for an outsider, figuring out their meaning can be difficult. At the heart of every Day of the Dead tradition is remembering and respecting family members who have passed away.

At the center of the Day of the Dead festival are the altars. These elaborate altars are formed with specific elements placed on their tiers according to Day of the Dead traditions. At the top, a photo is placed of the loved one for whom the altars is dedicated. On lower tiers sit a glass of water to symbolize the essence of life and candles to represent faith. Families also place the person’s favorite foods and drinks, in addition to pan de muerto. Other treasured items may be placed on the tiers, ranging from favorite books to sports team memorabilia, all to remember the lives of those who have passed away. Across the altar, flowers of cempasuchil are strewn. According to tradition, these flowers light the path for the spirit to come and visit the family during the Day of the Dead festival. They are also believed to bring life to the deceased as the petals dance in the wind. As families construct and sit around these altars, they share stories about their loved ones and feel their presence with them once again.

One of the popular more modern Mexican traditions are the catrinas, decorated skeletons decked out in Victorian fashion. These catrinas were first imagined by the political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, who drew one to accompany a Dia de Muertos poem. Below the image, he wrote that we are all skeletons, reminding the country that rich or poor, we are all the same. Today, to celebrate the Mexican holiday, people paint their faces and dress as catrinas to remember that death isn’t scary. It’s something that every person will encounter in their life, so live life in joy and not fear. These stunning costumes are now a common element of Day of the Dead traditions.

As many of these Mexico traditions center on respecting the dead, it’s not surprising that many communities and families hold graveside vigils for Dia de Muertos. During the day, families work together to tidy up cemeteries and decorate the graves of their family, similar to how they decorate the altars in Mexican traditions. During the night, surrounded by the glow of candles, families sit together around the graves to share memories of their families and feel the warmth that this remembrance brings. For some, feeling closer to their families and ancestors helps them seek clarity on problems and answer to questions. Throughout this Mexican holiday, the mood is kept lighthearted with amusing personal stories and sweet treats.

One traditional food that’s only eaten this time of year is pan de muertos. This bread varies around the country, but it’s always sweet. Sometimes, it’s even sweetened with the flavor of oranges. On top of the individual loaves, dough is formed to look like bones. While still a beautiful pattern, it’s another reminder that death is not something to fear or mourn. It’s something that will happen, and after you die, your family will continue to celebrate the sweetness of your life.

Riviera Nayarit traditions are joyful and colorful during Dia de Muertos every fall. From sweet bread to elaborate altars, children in Mexico grow up knowing their families’ stories without a fear of death. These Mexican traditions have evolved over the years but continue to bring communities together in celebration.

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