Day of the Dead: A Different Way to Embrace Death

Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most significant festivities. This time-honored celebration takes on a unique traditional emphasis, filled with vibrant colors, captivating performances, and heartwarming remembrance.

Growing up in the UK, death was often a somber topic and something that we didn’t really talk much about. But when I was introduced to Day of the Dead in Mexico, I felt a profound shift in perspective. It took me a moment to grasp the underlying humor, openness, honesty, and celebration surrounding the tradition, but I quickly learned to embrace the local way of honoring departed loved ones by celebrating their lives rather than focusing solely on their absence.

In this blog, I hope to share a glimpse of what Day of the Dead in Mexico is all about and also explain how it’s not to be confused with Halloween! We’ll also add the official program of Day of the Dead celebrations in San Miguel de Allende if you want to scroll down to the bottom.

Before getting into the details of the San Miguel de Allende Day of the Dead celebrations, let’s take a quick look into where, why, and how this tradition all started.

Origins of the Day of the Dead

Ancient Traditions

Mictecacihuatl, 'The Lady of the Dead'

Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) can be traced back to indigenous cultures in Mexico dating over 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Before the Spanish colonization, the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations held rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors. These celebrations took place in the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli, roughly corresponding to our August, and were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead.”

The Spanish Influence

With the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, there was a concerted effort to convert indigenous people to Catholicism. As a result, these ancient rituals, which used to span a whole month, were condensed and shifted to align with two Catholic holidays: All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd). This blending of cultures and traditions created the modern Day of the Dead as we know it.

Meaning Behind the Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead isn’t a day of mourning. Instead, it’s a joyous occasion where death is accepted as a natural part of the human experience. The central belief is that the deceased would be insulted by sadness and tears. Instead, they are honored with lively celebrations. Families create “ofrendas” (altars) decorated with bright yellow marigold flowers (Cempasuchil), photos of the departed, and their favorite food and drinks. This is all done in the belief that the spirits will return to visit and enjoy the offerings left for them.

An ofrenda/altar to remember loved ones

The Evolving Celebration

While the core of the celebration—honoring and remembering the deceased—has remained unchanged, there have been notable evolutions. Due to the global spread of American culture, Halloween motifs sometimes mix with Day of the Dead celebrations. This is especially common in urban areas, leading to concerns among some that the holiday is losing its unique identity. However, the fundamental spirit of the holiday, as a time for honoring and celebrating deceased loved ones, remains intact.

 

Important Cultural Appreciation Tip: There are often big groups of tourists ‘touring’ and recording the beautifully decorated cemeteries during these festive days. I know that it’s incredible content for your social media but please remember that it’s a personal and private moment for the families of lost ones and not an exhibition. It’s essential to maintain the utmost respect for people grieving and celebrating loved ones in their time of remembrance. If you do want to visit the cemeteries, maybe try going a few days after the 3rd November when things have quietened down a little. 

Mexico’s Perspective on Death

Mexican culture has a unique relationship with death. While in many cultures death is seen as an end, in Mexico, it’s often viewed as a continuation. Death isn’t feared or dreaded, but embraced as a natural part of life. This view is vividly showcased in the Day of the Dead celebrations, where death takes on a whimsical persona and is celebrated with music, dance, and vibrant day of the dead decorations.

 

It’s this rich tapestry of history, spirituality, and culture that makes the Day of the Dead such a revered and influential celebration in Mexican culture.

Day of the Dead vs. Halloween: Two Distinct Celebrations NOT to be Confused!

While both holidays share some surface-level similarities, such as the use of skeletons and an association with the dead, their origins, meanings, and practices are profoundly different. Here’s a comparison to clearly differentiate the two:

Origins

  • Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)

    • Ancient Mesoamerican roots, with a blend of Catholic influences.
    • Initially a month-long celebration presided by the goddess Mictecacihuatl.
    • Shifted to coincide with Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day due to Spanish colonization.
  • Halloween

    • Originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.
    • Celts believed that the night before their new year (November 1st), the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.
    • Christianized as Halloween by the early Church.

Purpose and Meaning

  • Day of the Dead

    • A joyous celebration of the lives of deceased loved ones.
    • Focus on remembrance and the spiritual reunion of families with the spirits of their departed.
    • Celebrates death as a natural and integral part of the human experience.
  • Halloween

    • A celebration of the spooky and mysterious.
    • Associated with ghosts, witches, and the unknown.
    • Mainly focused on fun and thrill, with a touch of the macabre.

Traditions and Activities

  • Day of the Dead

    • Families create “ofrendas” or altars decorated with marigold flowers, photos, and favorite foods of the departed.
    • Graves are cleaned and adorned.
    • People dress as skeletons and Catrinas, wearing colorful makeup and outfits, often reflecting a departed loved one or an iconic figure.
    • Traditional foods like “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead) are prepared and can be bought in all of our wonderful San Miguel de Allende bakeries.
  • Halloween

    • Trick-or-treating: Children go from door to door collecting candy.
    • Dressing up in a wide range of costumes, from the spooky to the comical.
    • Carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns.
    • Halloween parties with themed games and activities.

Celebration in San Miguel de Allende

  • Day of the Dead

    • Deeply ingrained in local traditions.
    • Parades, festivals, and family gatherings are commonplace.
  • Halloween

    • Largely celebrated within the expatriate community and among some urban locals influenced by American culture.
    • Trick-or-treating is more common in gated communities and school parties, rather than a widespread tradition in the city.

While Halloween and the Day of the Dead might sometimes seem intertwined in cities with significant foreign influences, their core spirits and purposes remain distinct. In San Miguel de Allende, as in many parts of Mexico, it’s essential to respect and understand the deep cultural significance of the Day of the Dead while also enjoying the fun and festive nature of Halloween.

Typical Day of the Dead Traditions

Across Mexico, streets come alive with Day of the Dead decorations and vibrant Day of the Dead crafts. Central to the celebration are beautifully decorated altars, of food offerings, alfeñiques (a variety of intricate sugar sculptures), calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls), and the iconic marigold flowers. The intricacy of Day of the Dead paper crafts like the unique mojiganagas (giant paper mache puppets) and the delicate “papel picado” further adds charm to this festival. 

Alfeñiques sugar scultures
Papel Picado

For anyone that’s unfamiliar, papel picado is perforated tissue paper often seen hanging in the streets and homes in Mexico. This meticulous paper craft typically features animals, flowers, and skeletons. For Day of the Dead, it’s a reminder of how fragile life can be. Yellow and purple colors are often used, signifying purity and remembrance, while the holes in the paper are thought to pave the way for souls to visit us.

Day of the Dead Activities in San Miguel de Allende

  • A Stellar Line-up: Running from October 30 to November 5, San Miguel de Allende hosts a series of events promising to captivate both residents and tourists alike. The grand finale is set to be a memorable affair with a performance by the internationally acclaimed Mexican artist Lila Downs, accompanied by the poetic rhythms of “In Xochitl – In Cuicatl.”
  • Catrina Parade: November 2nd sees the town’s streets come alive at 6 p.m. with the “Parade of the Dead and Catrinas.” Starting from El Cardo and culminating at the Main Garden, this procession showcases residents and visitors donning spectacular outfits, paying homage to this revered Mexican tradition.
  • Altars and More: The historic center of San Miguel de Allende will be adorned with traditional altars, paying respects to the departed. Complementing these will be a range of activities, including children’s films, lectures, contemporary dance performances, traditional rondallas, theater, and folkloric ballet, ensuring there’s something for everyone.
  • A Glimpse of the Schedule:

    • October 30: Events kick off with offerings at Casa de la Cultura and culminate in an event titled “Al Color de Cempasuchil” at the Main Garden.
    • November 1: Activities range from children’s cinema (La Leyenda de la Llorona) to artistic ballet presentations at Explanada de Jardin Principal
    • November 2: The day promises enchantment from morning, with offerings at the Main Garden, to the evening’s ballet performance.

 

 

*See below for times and venues in the complete Day of the Dead program.

Last Thoughts

San Miguel de Allende is a wonderful place to experience Day of the Dead. So, whether you’re dreaming of traditional dishes, admiring the unique crafts and decorations, or partaking in the spirited parades, you’re promised memories to cherish forever.