How to celebrate the Day of the Dead the right way

The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrating death and life. It’s a way to celebrate and remember loved ones as the holiday supposedly reunites the living and dead, sharing a meal as they would while they were alive. But it’s not a sad affair, it’s all about celebrations, funny events, and even mocking death.

When is the Day of the Dead?

The Day of the Dead is actually celebrated over 2 days: 1st and 2nd November. In some places, though, the festivities can start as early as sunset on 31st October.

The 1st November is known as the Día de los Angelitos, where the spirits of children are believed to be reunited with their families for 24 hours. Sugar skulls will be left at the ofrendas (altars) with the child’s name, along with some of their toys and snacks to encourage a visit.

At midnight on the 2nd (also known as Día de los Difuntos), the celebrations shift to honour the spirits of adults. The ofrendas take on a more adult theme, with tequila and mezcal taking over.

From noon on the 2nd, the grand finale of the Día de los Muertos takes over in full swing, when the spirits of all the dead can visit. It’s common for families to visit the graves of their loved ones, enjoying a meal together.

How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

The Day of the Dead is a colourfully cheerful event with all kinds of parades, decorations, face painting, and more. The traditions are different across all the different regions, but there are unique traditions that have become synonymous with the Day of the Dead.

Ofrendas (altars)

The ofrenda is the most important part of the festival – for some people, the ofrenda altar is all there is to the day.

It’s commonly a 2-tiered table, covered in a brightly coloured tablecloth and decorated with marigolds and candles.

On the top tier, you’ll find photos of the deceased alongside personal belongings. On the next tier, you’ll find offerings that are placed to encourage visits and celebrate their lives. Offerings on the altar could be anything from tamales and sugar skulls to tequila and cigars. It’s all about what they loved rather than traditional Mexican foods.


While the food on the ofrendas can be a variety of favourite foods, there are still some that are traditionally eaten on the Day of the Dead.

The pan de muerto (sweet bread of the dead) is often handmade by family members to add to the altars, but it’s also sold in bakeries and supermarkets from the middle of October. The best part about the sweet bread of the dead is that it’s made differently in different parts of the country.

Soups are also a huge deal as they can warm you up ready for a night of celebrations. Pozole is unsurprisingly many Mexicans’ favourite food, made up of pulled pork, tomatoes, corn, and garnish.


It’s the decorations, colours, and fun that really make Day of the Dead something to remember from your holiday in Mexico. Marigolds adorn houses and cemeteries, papel picado hangs along the streets, and oil cloths cover tables piled with food.

The classic, colourfully decorated skulls we all know and love are a huge part of the celebrations. The sugar skulls were traditionally moulded with clay, but they’ve evolved into sweet treats of chocolates and cookies. Each skull represented a departed soul, whose name was on its forehead. Because of the fun of the festival, people will write their friends’ names on as a joke.

The smiling skulls and skeletons are used to laugh at death, inspired by the artist José Guadalupe Posada. He drew and etched skeletons in satirical ways, doing various daily activities. But he’s most well-known for the iconic La Calavera Catrina, a towering female skeleton with vibrant make up and a flamboyant feathery hat, which the modern sugar skulls are based on.

Day of the Dead festivities and traditions

Local celebrations and traditions vary from place to place, each region celebrating in their own way. But there are some things you’ll find all across Mexico.

The Day of the Dead parades are kaleidoscopic fun all around! There’s music, dancing, and plenty of colourful costumes. And who could forget the giant parade floats of alebrijes gliding through the streets? Colourful animals made up of a range of different species are said to help the dead and keep the living safe.

Did you know…
Mexico City’s parade and street party in the James Bond film ‘Spectre’ was entirely fictional! They only started holding a parade AFTER the film’s release, which brought in a lot of tourists looking for the impressive street party.

One tradition you might not have heard about is the calaveritas. They’re short, funny poems that poke fun at the living, whether that’s their friends and family or just people in general. Of course, they’re a popular part of Día de los Muertos because it’s a fun celebration, and what’s more fun than roasting your loved ones? They’re normally shared during the celebrations, but don’t be surprised if you see them in newspapers, on TV, or on the radio.

Where is the best place to join in the Day of the Dead celebrations?

Everywhere in Mexico celebrates Día de los Muertos differently. Some celebrate the lives of their families privately with just an altar, while some go all out with parades, street parties, and decorations lining the streets.

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is an iconic place to celebrate the occasion. The festivities last 4 days here, thanks to the festival La Calaca. The streets are filled with colour, live music, and activities for all ages – it’s no wonder the entire population seems to be concentrated around the main square.

Children dressed as skeletons go out at night through the main plaza handing out sweets to all the kids during a unique parade. There are also contests for the best afrendas, the best carved pumpkins, and more, which everyone can get involved in.


Lake Pátzcuaro and Janitzio in Michoacán are where traditions come alive. The celebrations haven’t changed much over the years, so it’s the ideal spot to experience local traditions in a surreal setting.

Across the lake, fishermen light lanterns on their boats, creating an incredible procession of light across the water. On land, the cemeteries become a hub of activity, as people celebrate life with music, food, and drink and remembering their loved ones.

El Zócalo

If you’re in Mexico City, El Zócalo is the place to be. It’s a carnival-esque fanfare of Mexican culture with costumes, lights, floats and live music. It’s a great place for tourists to enjoy the holiday with a different theme every year.

Because the parade was designed to bring in visitors, the traditions still run deep. The ofrendas and sugar skulls are immense, the food is delicious, and the graveyards and cemeteries are adorned with flowers, candles, and families enjoying a meal together.


Oaxaca is a go-to destination for tourists to experience Day of the Dead. A sunset parade on 31st October kicks off the celebrations and they last right into the night of the 2nd November. The parades are scattered through the city streets, with bright colours and lively dancing all over the region.

Take a tour of the main pantheon of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán to really get into the traditional Día de los Muertos spirit among the tombs, altars, and cempasúchil (flowers of the dead). But keep an eye out in Tuxtepec where locals spend the lead-up to Day of the Dead creating detailed sawdust rugs, which are judged in the village square.


Campeche has a much more toned-down vibe when it comes to celebrating the holiday – the inhabitants have a long history with it. While you’ll still find colourful decorations, ofrendas, and sugar skulls, it’s more about the old-school traditions.

The main tradition that has been alive for centuries in Campeche is the bone washing and grave cleaning. Families will wash the tombs and clean the bones of their deceased, giving the skulls and bones air and sun. Their ossuaries (boxes where the bones are kept) are covered with an embroidered white tablecloth.

Riviera Maya

Riviera Maya is one of Mexico’s top tourist spots, but Mayan traditions still run deep. You’ll find cultural performances and workshops to learn all about the festival and its traditions, immersed in colour and surrounded by sugar skulls.

The best place to celebrate is Xcaret, the iconic theme park and biosphere. For the Day of the Dead, Xcaret transforms itself with parades, family-friendly activities, and other attractions you won’t see anywhere else in Mexico.

The post How to celebrate the Day of the Dead the right way appeared first on TravelRepublic Blog.

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