Exploring the history and traditions of Mexico’s Day of the Dead

by | 2 Nov 2022

Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a multi-day holiday celebrated every year to honour the dead. While that might seem like a sombre occasion, it’s actually a vibrant and joyful affair. The souls of the dead return to the world of the leaving for just one day, and families celebrate through traditions like altars, offerings, food, music, funny stories, and graveside vigils.

With origins stemming back to the Aztec Empire, these iconic traditions have been passed on for centuries and have only grown in global popularity over time. From being featured in films like “Coco”, “The Book of Life” and “Spectre” to being recognised by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a truly special celebration. We dive into all things Día de los Muertos, from the ancient history to the contemporary traditions that represent this spectacular festival.


Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations run from 31 October to 2 November. The festivities usually start the night of 31 October, the day of the return of the youngest souls. It’s known as Día de Los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”). It’s said that the gates of heaven open at midnight on 31 October and the souls of children run ahead of the adults to rejoin their families for a day on 1 November. The souls of all adults come the following day on 2 November.

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The Day of the Dead is an ancient tradition with Pre-Columbian origins, dating all the way back to the Aztecs in the 14th century. The Aztecs believed the souls of the dead existed in another world and could return to the living, so it was important to maintain bonds with deceased ancestors.

Aztec mythology centred around gods and goddesses. The goddess Mictecacihuatl, or the “Lady of the Dead” ruled the underworld watching over the bones of the dead, which were key to the afterlife. Mictecacihuatl was represented by a grinning skull face, which you still see as a symbol of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The Aztecs held festivals each year to honour the gods and the spirits of dead ancestors and call them back to the living world.

When the Spanish invaded the Aztec empire in the 16th century Catholicism descended on the region. Catholics observe “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day”, where the dead are honoured. These practices merged with Pre-Hispanic beliefs and traditions to create what we know today as Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

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Day of the Dead is celebrated in different ways nationwide, but there are some traditions you’ll see in every region.


Altares (altars) are the central tradition of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Families build spectacular altars with multiple levels. Two levels represent the earth and sky, three symbolise heaven, and seven levels represent the seven steps to the afterlife.

The altars are stacked with ofrendas (offerings) such as candles, photos, and beloved personal tokens or favourite foods. You’ll also find Mexican cempasúchiles (marigolds), sugar skulls and pan de muerto (traditional sweet bread). If the altar is for a child, it’s common to see small toys, favourite foods, cherished items, and a rug for a place for the souls to rest.

The items in ofrendas are often symbolic of the four elements. Ashes represent earth and tissue paper designs signify air. Meanwhile, candles offer light to guide the souls home, and water is there to help the souls quench their thirst after their journey.

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Altars are usually built in the home. However, some communities, such as those in Pátzcuaro, build them beside the graves of the dead and hold graveside vigils. In pre-Hispanic times, people were buried close to their homes, so there was no need for separate altars. Now that people are buried further away, many communities clean and decorate the graves in the belief that the dead return there first.

Some communities lay paths of flower petals from the graves to the home, so the souls can find their way. Others spend the whole night in the cemetery, and it’s a joyful celebration with music, food and drinking. At these celebrations, you’ll often hear people telling funny stories and memories about their dead ancestors. This is so the souls can be remembered in a joyful way. It’s a beautiful custom representative of the oral rituals in Mexican culture.


You’ll see the gorgeous golden cempasúchiles all over during Mexico’s Day of the Dead, from towns to cemeteries. Also known as flor de muerto (“flower of the dead”), cempasúchiles only bloom during the rainy season prior to the Day of the Dead and are an iconic symbol of the celebration. It’s believed this bright flower represents the sun and helps guide the souls of the dead back to the living world.


Pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) is the traditional pastry of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. It stems back to when the Aztecs would make traditional bread as offerings. The modern-day pan de muerto is an orange-flavoured sweet bread sprinkled with sugar. It’s made with pair of crossed bones and a circle to symbolise the skull. While it’s placed at altars as ofrendas, you can find it all over the country during the festivities and try it for yourself.

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Sugar skulls might just be the most iconic symbol of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The origins of sugar skulls also come from Aztec culture. Today sugar skulls are offered at altars with the name of the deceased written in icing on the skull’s forehead.


The bone theme continues with calacas, the colourful skeletons you’ll see all over the country. The calacas are often dressed in traditional Mexican clothes and styles. One of the best places to experience this is Guadalajara, where they’re put on show through the central avenue.

I'm Alex, Editor of Insightful. I have over 10 years' experience as a travel writer and editor, and have been lucky enough to visit some incredible destinations in that time. Canada, Italy and Iceland are (so far) my favorite places on Earth, but at the top of my wish list for future adventures is India. I'm fascinated by indigenous cultures and traditions, have a hearty appetite for history (but a poor memory for dates), and feel most at home in wild, unpopulated landscapes.