Mexican Day of the Dead Traditions

By: Catherine Gordon

October 1, 2014

With its smiling skulls and laughing skeletons, the Day of the Dead is one of the most intriguing events in the Mexican cultural calendar. If you’re planning a trip to Cancun during the festival, take a look at our guide to Mexican Day of the Dead traditions before you fly.

The Day of the Dead festival is traditionally a time when Mexicans gather together to remember family members who have died. The belief is that at midnight on 31st October, the gates of heaven open, and the spirits of the deceased return to earth to visit their loved ones. The first day, 1st November, is known as Dia de los Angelitos, when the spirits of dead infants and children are honoured, while the 2nd November, Dia de los Muertos, is when adult spirits are remembered.

Mexican Day of the Dead Traditions
Prayers for the dead © Xcaret Park, Cancun, Mexico 

In homes in central and southern Mexico, including the Yucatán Peninsula, families make elaborate altars, known as ofrendas, adorned with calaveras (skulls made from sugar), wild marigolds and candles. Offerings of food and drink are left for the returning spirits including pan de muerto (a type of sweet roll), tamales, mole, soft drinks, hot chocolate, and even a cup of punch or mezcal. It is thought that if the spirits of dead family members are happy with the ofrendas, then they will provide protection and bring good luck to the living. Also on the 2nd November, families visit cemeteries to clean tombs and leave flowers and candles for their relatives.

Mexican Day of the Dead Traditions
Mexican cemetery decorated for Day of the Dead © Xcaret Park, Cancun, Mexico

The Day of the Dead is an important part of Mexican heritage; a spiritual time steeped in tradition, full of storytelling and expressions of love. It provides a way for Mexicans to connect with their dead relatives, to remember them, learn from them and share their feelings with them.

Mexican Day of the Dead Traditions
Mexican Day of the Dead altar © Xcaret Park, Cancun, Mexico

So, what are the origins of The Day of the Dead? The festival combines the traditions of the Mexican Aztecs, an ancient indigenous culture who believed that the dead should be celebrated rather than mourned, with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day (1st and 2nd November), introduced by the Spanish when they conquered the Aztecs in the sixteenth century. The Aztec and the Catholic traditions have been combined by Mexicans, to create the Day of the Dead festivities that are now popular not only in Mexico, but also in the US and around the world.

Mexican Day of the Dead Traditions
Cemetery decorated with marigold flowers © Xcaret Park, Cancun, Mexico 

If you’re visiting Cancun during the Day of the Dead festivities, a great way to get involved in the celebrations is by attending The Festival of Life and Death Traditions at Xcaret Park. This four-day festival takes place from 30th October to 2nd November 2014, from 4pm to 10pm. At the festival you will be able to see all the Mexican Day of the Dead traditions, from decorated tombs to colourful costumes. There is a full programme of cultural and artistic activities including music and dance as well as events and workshops for families and children of all ages. During the 9th annual festival in 2014, the artistic performances, altars, food and events will reflect the particular way the Day of the Dead is celebrated in the state of Michoacán, the land of the butterfly.


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Have you experienced any Mexican Day of the Dead traditions? Let us know in the comments section below.


Written by Catherine Gordon


Catherine Gordon

British freelance journalist Catherine Gordon is based in Cancun, Mexico. She writes about Cancun, the Riviera Maya and the Yucatan for newspapers, magazines and online media. She specialises in travel, culture, health, luxury, water sports and off-the-beaten-track city guides. Her website can be viewed at

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