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Have you ever wondered why Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead? Perhaps you’ve even confused it with Halloween? Let’s discover el Día de Muertos together because let’s not forget that knowing and respecting cultures is an integral part of sustainable tourism.

Día de Muertos, an age-old tradition

Celebrated from 1 to 2 November, el Día de Muertos is one of Mexico’s most important celebrations. A blend of Catholic and pre-Hispanic rites, the celebration is intriguing: colourful altars, pan de muerto tastings, parades of catrinas, papel picado in the streets, and more.

But where does this Mexican celebration come from? Let’s take a quick look back in time!

Día de Muertos and the pre-Columbian era

The first traces of celebrations can be found in Mesoamerica, the region of Central America where the pre-Columbian peoples (Mayans, Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, etc.) lived until the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century. These peoples honoured the goddess of Death: Mictecacíhuatl. The rituals are accompanied by offerings and take place several times a year. Believers in the afterlife, death was merely a stage between earthly life and the “underworld”. To accompany their journey to the afterlife, the deceased are buried with a Xoloitzcuintli, a dog endemic to Mexico.

Mictecacíhuatl represented in the Codex Borgia
Mesoamerica and its cultural areas map. 
©Peter Hermes Furian Adobe Stocke
Mesoamerica and its cultural areas map. ©Peter Hermes Furian Adobe Stocke
Xoloitzcuintli, dog endemic to Mexico. ©Canva
Xoloitzcuintli, dog endemic to Mexico. ©Canva

Día de Muertos and Spanish colonisation

The arrival of the Spanish marked the beginning of the evangelisation of the Mexicans. Celebrations of the dead evolved with the spread of Catholicism. The date changed to coincide with All Saints’ Day, and Christian objects (candles, crosses, etc.) were added to the rituals. This fusion led to the evolution of rites up to the Día de Muertos we know today, which can be described as a syncretic between the cosmovision (conception of the universe, life and death) of pre-Hispanic peoples and Catholicism.

frida dia de muertos
Altar in homage to Frida Khalo in Mexico City. Christian objects (e.g. candles) are mixed with pre-Hispanic ones (e.g. cempasúchil flowers, mole dish) ©EliseCABANE

El Día de Muertos today

ofrenda dia de muertos
Autel pour le défilé de la fête des morts sur la place du Zócalo, Mexico,  ©EliseCABANE

Day of the Dead is spreading around the world

In 2017, Pixar released the animated film Coco, which takes place during Day of the Dead. Miguel, a 12-year-old boy, is accidentally transported to the underworld while trying to find his deceased musician great-grandfather. The film was an international success, ranking 4th at the box office. So far, Coco plays a major role in spreading the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead around the world.

Since 2003, the Day of the Dead has been a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage for its contribution to Mexican culture. 1 November celebrates the dead children and 2 November the dead adults. Mexican families continue to erect altars in homage to their departed loved ones, and on All Saints’ Eve, life is reborn in Mexican cemeteries. Families go to find their loved ones, put flowers on the graves, light candles and pray.

If you’ve seen the 24th opus of James Bond 007 Spectre (2015) you should remember the opening scene that takes place in Mexico City during Day of the Dead. Since this movie, Mexico City organize every year a gigantic parade inspired by the film, that attracts millions of people. Día de Muertos moves from the private to the public sphere.

Pan de muerto is eaten throughout October, and the Catrina has become one of the most famous costumes in the world… If these words don’t ring a bell, we have made a short glossary of the most important words about Day of the Dead.

Discover the vocabulary of Día de Muertos

La Catrina

The Catrina is a female skeleton emblematic of the Day of the Dead. In 1910, the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada drew the “Calavera Garbancera”, an elegant female skeleton. This caricature was a criticism of the Mexicans of the time, who wanted to look like Europeans. In the newspapers, Posada caricatured the opulence of the upper classes and the government through representations of skeletons.

la catrina dia de muertos
La Calavera Garbancera de José Guadalupe Posada

In 1947, Diego Rivera painted the monumental fresco “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la alameda central”, in which he included Posada’s Calavera holding her creator by the arm to her right and Diego Rivera as a child by the hand to her left (with Frida Khalo, his wife, behind). The fresco became internationally famous and exported with it the female skeleton, now known as “La Catrina”. Indeed, the figure that has become an emblem of Mexican culture is now one of the most famous disguises in the world.

Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central, Diego Rivera, 1947-1948

Offerings and altars

It is believed that the dead return to the earthly world to visit the living. To welcome them, Mexicans set up altars with various offerings (the tradition dates back to pre-Hispanic times): photos of the deceased, pan de muerto, calaveras (skulls), papel picado, personal items, cempasúchil flowers, salt, water, incense, candles, etc.

Altar in Mexico Ciy streets ©EliseCABANE

El papel picado

Papel picado means “cut paper”. This silk paper with a variety of motifs (flowers, birds, skulls, etc.) is used as banners in the streets and to decorate altars dedicated to the dead.

papel picado
Papel Picado in Coyoacán streets, Mexico  ©EliseCABANE

El pan de muerto

“Death bread” is a kind of brioche sprinkled with sugar, eaten from October onwards. It is one of the most emblematic dishes in Mexican cuisine. Its origins date back to pre-Hispanic times, when a bread made from amaranth and maize was presented to the gods as an offering. Its shape and recipe have evolved over the ages. Today, the circular shape represents the cycle of life. The small circle represents the skull of the deceased, and the 4 coils running from the centre represent his or her bones.

pan de muerto
Pan de muerto on a bed of cempasúchil flowers ©Canva

In Mexico, nothing seems more alive than the dead. Día de Muertos reminds us of our finitude and helps us to see death as a part of life that we should celebrate. Despite its proximity to Halloween, the two celebrations are very different. While contemporary Halloween is associated with fear and horror, el Día de Muertos is a warm and festive tribute to our loved ones.

Mexican altar, Mexico, ©EliseCABANE


Aurelia Antoni (17 mars 2022), “Qui était Posada, graveur mexicain des célèbres « calaveras » ?”, BeauxArts, https://www.beauxarts.com/expos/posada-le-graveur-mexicain-qui-a-revolutionne-limagerie-populaire/

Charles-Édouard de Suremain (2018), “Coco, l'”enfant du patrimoine” : sur la représentation de la fête des morts au Mexique à partir d’un “dessin animé patrimonial”, AnthropoChildren, 8 (8), 16 p.,10.25518/2034-8517.3135

Gobierno de México (01 novembre 2019), “Día de Muertos, tradición mexicana que trasciende en el tiempo”, https://www.gob.mx/inafed/articulos/dia-de-muertos-tradicion-mexicana-que-trasciende-en-el-tiempo

Guide Mexique (2018), Petit Futé, Paris, 672p., https://www.cultura.com/p-mexique-2018-petit-fute-3243812.html

Camilo Marín (14 octobre 2022), “La Catrina Garbancera tiene más de 100 años de historia”, Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Urbanismo, https://www.serfadu.com/2022/10/14/la-catrina-garbancera-tiene-mas-de-100-anos-de-historia/

Rocio Muñoz-Ledo (31 octobre 2022), “¿Cuál es el origen e historia del Día de Muertos en México y por qué se celebra?”, CNN Español, https://cnnespanol.cnn.com/2022/10/31/origen-historia-dia-muertos-mexico-por-que-se-celebra-orix/

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