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What to Expect: Dia de Muertos in Mexico

I am thrilled to have Katja Gaskell from Globetotting sharing her experience with the Mexican festival of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). I love her site and if you haven’t checked it out, head over there now to see where they are headed on their latest adventure. We have always encouraged our children to learn about other cultures, and one of the easiest ways to do this is through teaching them about traditions, foods, and holiday celebrations. Hopefully, you’ll use this to start a conversation with your kids about celebrations around the world or use it to educate yourself about another culture.

If you've ever wanted to know what it would be like to experience Dia de Muertos in Mexico, keep reading. Here's what to expect and how to enjoy this fabulous celebration. - Kids Are A Trip

Celebrating Dia De Muertos en Mexico

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Mexico’s most famous festival Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead in Spanish) is today known around the world. Characterized by gangly skeletons, Day of the Dead sugar skulls and bright orange marigolds, this annual celebration of the dead is vibrant and colorful. It’s also a very moving holiday, when friends and families gather together to remember loved ones who have passed away.

What is Día de Muertos?

The Day of the Dead festival dates back to pre-Hispanic times when the Aztecs would dedicate one month every summer to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they discovered a people who, rather than fear and mourn death, celebrated it instead by dancing in honor of their deceased loved ones. Unlike the conquistadoras who saw death as the end of life, the Aztecs regarded it as the continuation of life. Today, the popular belief remains that over this holiday period, the deceased have permission to visit friends and relatives on earth and once again enjoy that which they did when they were alive.

Skulls for Día de Muertos - Kids Are A Trip
Photo credit: Katja Gaskell

When is Dia de los Muertos?

Despite the Spaniards best attempts to quash what they saw as a pagan ritual, the traditional Mexican beliefs and customs associated with death were gradually incorporated into the Roman Catholic calendar and today Día de Muertos coincides with All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day.

The holiday officially runs over three days, starting at midnight on October 31. Traditionally November 1 is for remembering children who have died and November 2 is in remembrance of deceased adults. In reality, however, families are often preparing in the weeks leading up to the start of the celebrations.

How do people celebrate Day of the Dead? 

Every region in Mexico has its own customs and traditions associated with Día de Muertos but the common theme is one of honoring and remembering loved ones who have died.

Traditions remain particularly authentic in small towns and villages where families will visit cemeteries to decorate the graves of their relatives with orange cempasuchils (Mexican Marigolds) and candles. Traditionally families would leave flower petals and candles along a path from the cemetery to their house so that the spirits would find their way home. Families will often spend the night at the cemetery and bring foods that their loved ones enjoyed, and maybe even a bottle of tequila or two.

Orange Marigolds for Día de Muertos-Kids Are A Trip
Photo credit: Katja Gaskell

In cities families create ofrendas (altars) in their homes in memory of their loved ones. These ofrendas are each different and personal but are often decorated with cempasuchils, photos of the deceased, brightly colored papel picado (delicate paper cut outs) and favorite foods of their loved ones. Miniature ceramic figures of food or hobbies that the dead might have enjoyed are placed on the altar as well.

It’s not uncommon to see ofrendas in many places in the weeks leading up to Día de Muertos. Even schools often create an altar, not necessarily in memory of a particular person, but to honour the holiday.

Symbols and traditions of Día de Muertos

There are numerous symbols associated with Día de Muertos, each steeped in meaning. These Day of the Dead decorations can be found in local shops and stands.

Some of the more popular images include the calaveras, the decorative sugar skulls topped with colored icing. These hark back to pre-Hispanic times when skulls were commonly kept as trophies after battle and put on display during religious ceremonies. Today you’ll find sugar skulls for sale everywhere in the lead up to the holiday. They can sometimes be eaten but their main purpose is to decorate the altars. Chocolate ones are also available and these can definitely be eaten!

The most famous symbol of Día de Muertos is La Catrina an elegant female skeleton usually seen wearing a long dress and an ornate feathered hat. She has come to represent death in Mexican culture.

Celebrating Día de Muertos-Kids Are A Trip
Photo credit: Katja Gaskell

The color of the cempasuchils is thought to represent the colour of the Sun. The Aztecs believed that the sun would guide the dead souls along the correct path. Today cempasuchils are literally everywhere in Mexico throughout the month of October.

Wherever you might be in Mexico over the course of Día de Muertos, you will see evidence of the festival. It’s a time of remembrance and a way of honouring those who have passed; a celebration of life that we could all possibly learn something from.

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Where to Stay in Mexico City for Day of the Dead

How about Ignacia Guest House, an eco-friendly bed and breakfast in the Colonia Roma neighborhood? Families with children aged 12 and above will enjoy this lovely accommodation where Day of the Dead is a big celebration. Guests can enjoy a variety of Day of the Dead experiences including a “calaverita” (skull shaped candy), traditional Pan de Muertos or “bread of the dead”, a calabaza en tacha (Dia de los Muertos candied pumpkin), and festive happy hour cocktails with flavors of anise and pumpkin to celebrate the season.

Many of the resorts in Mexico also have their own Dia de los Muertos celebrations, so come prepared if you plan to travel during this time. And don’t miss our post Things to Do in Mexico City with Kids to help plan a visit!

Katja is the co-founder of Globetotting, a website for adventurous family travel. She is a firm believer that you can – and should! – take your children everywhere and anywhere no matter what age they are. Prior to life on the road with kids, Katja wrote across a range of titles for Lonely Planet and tried and tested luxury hotels for the British boutique hotel guide Mr & Mrs Smith. She is currently based in London with her husband and three children.

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51 Comments

  1. I remember learning about this holiday in school. It would be such a great experience to actually be there for it one year.

  2. This is so neat! I love reading about other cultures. Their Dia de Muertos sounds a lot like our Halloween!

  3. As a baker, I’ve always loved sugar skulls or baked goods decorated like sugar skulls. They are so beautiful. With that being said I never really knew the history or story behind Dia de Muertos. Dia de Muertos is really beautiful. I didn’t realize that. This is a very interesting read that I am glad I read! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Blythe A. says:

    I never really knew much about Dia De Muertos, except for it being the Day of the Dead, and having something to do with skulls. Thanks for sharing the traditions and history. I was so interesting. I love how beautiful the skulls are; haunting, yet cheery.

  5. Great post! I’ve heard of Day of the Dead but didn’t know much about it. A very interesting holiday and I love the perspective believers take on death.

  6. Wow! I learned so much from this article. I actually had fun reading it. I remember celebrating this as a part of Spanish class. It brought back some memories.

  7. This is so interesting! I’ve heard of Dia de Muertos, but never really knew anything about it. I love the idea of doing a series on global celebrations– such a fun topic!

  8. I love this series! I love learning more about different celebrations!

  9. I haven’t celebrated the Day of the Dead. It would be interesting to participate in one.

  10. I think this is such a great celebration. Instead of feeling sadness, it is wonderful to celebrate their lives, and be together with loved ones.

  11. I always wanted to go to a true Dia de los Muertos celebration. There aren’t ever any around me, but I’m hoping for one soon!

  12. Great post about Día de Muertos. I love how colorful your photos are!

  13. What a beautiful holiday! I would love to be in Mexico for this celebration one year!

  14. I love the Dia de los Muertos celebrations because they are so beautiful and full of celebration.

  15. The artwork and sugar skulls associated with Day of the Dead celebrations have always fascinated me. I love the color and creativity.

  16. I’ve never tried sugar skulls. I’m going to have to seek them out. Where are you Sarah? Maybe I can just come try some of yours!

  17. It’s really beautiful isn’t it? Such a nice memory of something that is usually so sad.

  18. I agree Blythe. They are so beautiful and intricate. I love the vivid colors.

  19. I agree Yanique. It is such a unique perspective they have. I find it fascinating.

  20. Thanks Cynthia!

  21. Thanks Katherine. I remember learning about it in Spanish class too!

  22. Thanks Jamie. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  23. Thanks Debra! Look for another one next week!

  24. I agree. I think it would be very interesting to celebrate in Mexico.

  25. I completely agree Melissa.

  26. Me too Kirsten! I think it would be an amazing experience.

  27. The photos are amazing aren’t they? Katja really did a wonderful job capturing the colors of the holiday!

  28. Me too Donna!

  29. I agree Janet!

  30. It does look fun, doesn’t it Bonnie?

  31. They are so creative and beautiful, aren’t they Yona? I am definitely not that creative!

  32. I loved learning about this in Spanish class when I was younger. It’s wonderful that they find a way to honor those who have passed!

  33. I love the idea of celebrating the dead. I bet kids would appreciate not being scared of it!

  34. I don’t know anyone who celebrates, but I think it’s one of the coolest holidays!

  35. I agree Ashleigh!

  36. I never thought of it that way Jaclyn. I bet you’re right!

  37. I agree! Just wait until you see tomorrow’s holiday. It’s another fun one!

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