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Mexico's Day of the Dead holiday takes place on October 31 (Young Souls Day), November 1 (All Saints Day) and November 2 (All Souls Day). Each state pays homage to deceased loved ones in slightly different but equally colorful ways.

Hand-painted skull
Hand-painted skull
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The history of Day of the Dead observances began in pre-Hispanic Mexico. Aztecs, Mayans, Purepecha, Nahua, Totonac and Otomi shared indigenous beliefs that the souls of the deceased return annually to visit living relatives and eat and drink with them. These ancient cultures all celebrated the return of their dearly departed with festivals and fanfare.

Families gather to honor their ancestors through ofrendas (altars), decorated with cempasuchil (marigolds), candles, photographs of the departed, small coffins, often with pop-up skeletons, and the deceased's favorite foods and drinks. Altars range in size and are placed in homes and at gravesites.

Traditional decorations

Calaveras (skulls) are an important part of today's Day of the Dead celebrations. Originally, skulls and skeletons were represented in pre-Hispanic Mexican art, particularly by the Aztec civilization, which ruled much of Mexico during the Spanish conquest.

The skulls became part of popular culture and moved into the mainstream in the 19th century when Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913) placed them in his political art that satirized the corruption and social inequities of his time. In Posada's more than 900 drawings, politicians and legendary figures inhabited a world of skeletons and skulls.

Festival foods

Sugar skulls, another important part of the altar, are decorated with paper foil for eyes and colored icing for hair. Names can be added and Mexican children often exchange named skulls with friends. Sweets and candy skulls are traditionally intended for the angelitos (little angels), the young souls of departed children, who return to earth in the late afternoon of October 31.

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead)
Pan de muerto (bread of the dead)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Another Day of the Dead must-have is pan de muerto (bread of the dead), made with anise, sugar, butter, eggs, flour, yeast and orange peel, decorated with strips of dough simulating bones. Traditionally, families share bread in remembrance of their deceased loved ones. Another traditional Mexican dish during this holiday is the tasty calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin), prepared with cinnamon and brown sugar.

Yucatan festival

Yucatan Peninsula residents call their festival Hanal Pixan, a feast for all souls. The capital city of Merida is at the heart of this celebration. Families clean and decorate loved one's graves in preparation for their visit. The first souls to find their way home are the children, Pixanitos, who return October 31, with the adults, or Pixanes, soon following on November 1 and 2.

Celebrations include the deceased's favorite foods and Mexican candies, placed on tables with long white cloths. Families prepare pibipollo, seasoned chicken tamales wrapped in plantain leaves and cooked underground in a pit barbeque.

San Luis Potosi festival

At Huasteca Potosina in San Luis Potosi, stores stock candles, paper flowers, fireworks, tobacco, bread, candy, chocolate and coffee. Residents build cempasuchil arches to frame their altars, which represent the way in and out of the underworld. Lit from above with candles and incense they feature flower petal carpets to help guide spirits back to the side of the living.

Decorated balcony for Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico
Decorated balcony for Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The first offerings are made for departed children. They receive chocolates, yucca, sheets made with pumpkin seeds, pork and chicken cuatzam (tamales), corn and bean seeds, to promote fertility, salt for the non-baptized and water for the tired. All Saints' Day is celebrated by the lighting of incense and traditional dances that last the entire night.

Decorated female skeleton
Decorated female skeleton
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Oaxaca festival

Oaxaca has one of Mexico's most colorful Day of the Dead celebrations. The elaborate in-house altars have evolved into objects of art. For three days, the San Miguel Cemetery features exhibitions, altar competitions, music and prayers for the dead. In Oaxaca City's zocalo (main square), competing groups of students mold giant three-dimensional sand paintings depicting tombs, skeletons and ghosts.

Oaxacan mole negro (black mole), a rich sauce of more than twenty different spices, is served in tamales, to both the living and the dead.

Patzcuaro festival

In southern Michoacan State, Lake Patzcuaro's island of Janitzio (population 1500) is renowned for its impressive and colorful Day of the Dead celebrations.

Day of the Dead decorations
Day of the Dead decorations
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

At night, boats decorated with candles and flowers, transport villagers and visitors to the island's cemetery. There they spend the night, summoning back the dead, as sounds of ringing bells, chanting people and incense fragrance fill the air. The following evening, fishermen paddle their torch-lit canoes around the lake, where they throw butterfly nets.

After sunset, the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Old Men), native to Michoacan State and dating from pre-Hispanic times, is performed as a ritual honoring the Sun.

Mixquic festival

Only 25 miles southeast of Mexico City is the village of Mixquic. Each year, a street fair is held from October 30 to November 2 on village streets fanning out from the main plaza. Similar to Halloween, on the night of October 31, children go from house to house asking for goodies.

Most homes have large, intricate altars for Day of the Dead. Children kneel at altars and recite prayers before receiving food-gifts. To light their way, children carry carved green and white chilacayote (squash), which look like jack-o-lanterns.

More things to see and do in Mexico:

Queretaro Mexico Travel Guide

Guanajuato Vacation

San Miguel de Allende Mexico Trip

Cozumel Mexico - Things To See and Do

Central America on a Shoestring