You are currently viewing Day of the Dead Traditions a Mix of Old and New

Day of the Dead Traditions a Mix of Old and New

Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos in Spanish, is an annual holiday celebrated in Mexico, and around the world. It is a grand celebration of life, and of those who have left us.
With so many of its traditions dating back hundreds even thousands of years, one may assume that they all do. However, many of what we associate with the modern day Día de Muertos celebrations only came about in the last 100 years or less.

The Date

A wooden skeleton in bright clothing in Mexico

Often thought of as a Mexican Halloween, Día de Muertos had its roots set long before Christianity or a whisper of All Hallows Eve (AKA Halloween) had reached Mexican shores. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, the Aztec celebration took place at the start of summer. 
Over time though, the date moved closer and closer to Halloween and is now celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November. The same dates as All Soul’s Day and All Saint’s Day on the Christian calendar.

Although called Day of the Dead the celebrations extend beyond a single day. It is officially observed on the 1st and 2nd of November but there are many celebrations on the days before and after. The 1st of November is Día de los Inocentes or ‘Day of the Innocents’ and is the day reserved for honouring those who passed away in infancy or childhood. The 2nd of November, Día de Muertos, is the day to honour adults who have passed on.


Decorated grave sites or Ofrendas in Mexico for day of the Dead

Ofrendas are a type of altar set up and decorated by the families of the deceased in the lead up to Day of the Dead. They are often erected on top of the loved one’s graves or in peoples homes. You will also see them in malls, churches and street corners around Mexico. The Ofrendas are adorned with marigold petals, toys as well as the food and drink that the deceased enjoyed in life. Parts of this tradition are believed to date back thousands of years. 
The Aztecs believed that the souls of the deceased were hanging around in some kind of spirit land and that there is a way to breach the space between their land and ours. This breach can only occur one day a year: Día de Muertos.
The food, toys and drinks are placed on the Ofrendas for the souls to enjoy during their time back on earth. The marigold petals and coloured decorations are used to help the visiting souls to find their way back to their resting place.

La Calavera Catrina or The Fancy Skeleton

Three wooden Calavera Catrina dolls sitting in a chair

A mix of ancient beliefs and more modern satire the Calavera Catrina’s are the most commonly used symbols for Day of the Dead. 
The ancient Aztec Day of the Dead ceremonies went on for a month and were dedicated to the goddess or Lady of the Dead. Today’s depictions of the goddess are far different to the images worshipped by the Aztecs.

The Calavera Catrina, as she is today, first appeared around the 1920’s as a satirical cartoon drawn by José Guadalupe Posada. The cartoon depicted a skeleton dressed in fancy European clothing and was a stab at those ashamed of their indigenous heritage. Those who imitated European culture in their clothing and who whitened their skin. The caricatures were picked up and popularised by Diego Rivera in the late 1940’s and are now a notable part of Mexican culture. 
You can see the Calavera Catrinas in Mexico year round but they are most present around Day of the Dead. They adorn Ofrendas, are the inspiration for costumes and dance through the streets in parades. 


A colourful Alebrije in Mexico around Day of the Dead

Alebrijes are colourful Mexican folk art sculptures. They often take the form of a combination of different animals all smashed together. These mystical creatures were the results of one man’s fever dream.
In the 1930’s, Pedro Linares dreamt of a strange place full of these incredible creatures. He saw donkeys with wings and an eagle with a lions body, and all the creatures were chanting the same word “Alebrije”. He began to create the colourful figures in papier-mâché and so the Alebrijes were born.

Although not explicitly related to Day of the Dead they have become part of the modern day tale. In the 2017 film Coco, the alebrijes serve as a type of spirit guardian to the souls of the deceased. 
Towards the end of October, a parade of giant papier-mâché Alebrijes makes its way down the main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, in Mexico City. These colourful, larger than life sculptures decorate Paseo de la Reforma for weeks after the parade has ended and are a stunning addition to the Day of the Dead decorations.

The Day of the Dead Parade

A large skeleton shaped float in Mexico cities Day of the Dead parade.

One of the newest Day of the Dead traditions is the Día de Muertos parade.  Watching the long line of giant skeletons and costumed dancers parade down the main boulevard, one might assume this was a long-standing tradition. Perhaps one with great cultural significance to the Mexican people. It is, however, less than a decade old.

The parade first appeared on screen in the 2015 James Bond film, Spectre. Before appearing off screen the following year, when the skeleton floats made their maiden voyage down the main boulevard in Mexico City. The parade has been warmly embraced by the Mexican people. Tens of thousands now don skeleton facepaint and follow the parade as it makes its way to the city centre or Zocalo.

The Future of Day of the Dead

A girl with her face painted as a Calavera Catrina for Mexico's Day of the Dead.

Nowadays more Halloween traditions from the USA have made their way south of the border to cities in Mexico. It is common to see children dressed in costumes going door to door asking people for treats and money. There are costume parties and carved pumpkins and I’m sure these influences will only grow as time goes by.
Día de Muertos, however, has proven itself capable of evolution, as all good traditions are. It has held onto, and will continue to, the things that make it such a monumental and meaningful event. It is a celebration of the lives of those we have lost and a chance for many to feel close to them again. It is a colourful, lighthearted and truly enjoyable holiday best celebrated with those who do it best: Mexicans.

To experience Día de Muertos with the locals, book an unforgettable tour in Mexico City and the surrounds.

If you’ve celebrated Día de Muertos in Mexico, share your experience with us in the comment section below! Or tag us @bambaexperience on Instagram for your chance to have your photos shared!