The Day of the Dead in Mexico: 4 Things You Should Know


The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican celebration that takes place on November 1 and 2.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico with some regional variations. For example, in the Yucatan Peninsula it is called Janal Pixan (Food of the Souls), and in Michoacán  it is believed that the monarch butterflies, which arrive at this time, are the souls of the dead who visit us. Still, there are common elements in a beautiful mix of color, fragrances, and food. It is worth mentioning that, from the particular interpretation of the Day of the Dead by the “James Bond” franchise, in 2015, this Mexican celebration has gained international prestige.

1. Day of the Dead: Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

In 2008, UNESCO declared the Day of the Dead “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” for being a syncretic festivity merging pre-Hispanic culture and the Catholic religion giving rise to diverse popular expressions, transmitted from generation to generation, therefore it is a traditional, contemporary and living expression at the same time, inclusive, representative and communal.

2.The Altars of the Day of the Dead are Fundamental

The Altar of the Dead is a fundamental piece of the celebration of the Day of the Dead, its assembly varies depending on the region and the available elements. The general belief is that the souls of loved ones who have passed away come home to visit us, so we should welcome them with what they liked best: food, drink, personal items, flowers and candles. Some altars may also include copal, bread of the dead, amaranth or sugar skulls, chopped paper, crucifixes and rosaries.

3.Symbolism of the Altar of the Dead

All elements of nature are supposed to be represented:

  • Ether: It is the black tablecloth that covers the altar, on which everything is placed. It is the memory and the passage between life and death.
  • Fire: The candles guide the path of souls back home.
  • Air: Copal purifies the environment and its aroma also guides the soul back home. The chopped paper that moves with the wind, initially only yellow and purple, represents purity and mourning respectively.
  • Water: There must be pure water for the soul to drink after the long journey from beyond, but also its favorite drink, be it beer, wine, soft drink or liquor.
  • Earth: It is represented in all the edible elements: seeds, fruit, dishes and bread of the dead, the food from which the soul takes its essence.
  • The cempasúchil (Mexican marigold) flower, specifically, brings together the five elements: The ether are petals with which a path is usually traced so that the soul crosses the threshold towards the altar, its vibrant color is fire, its aroma is air, its substance is water and grows from earth.

4.Who is La Catrina?

The term “catrín” was used for men who dressed elegantly and were of a high social class. The main characteristic was that they loved to show it off. By extension, “catrina” is the term that was applied to women.

La Catrina is the cartoon of a skeleton wearing an elegant female hat created by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. She was baptized and dressed up by Diego Rivera to be the central character in his mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central.” Originally it is a criticism of the pretentious upper class but in a few years it has become part of Mexican popular culture and the emblematic character of the Day of the Dead celebration.

She has become so popular that she has starred or appeared in movies, videos, advertisements, product labels, etc.