A look at Day of the Dead celebrations in modern Mexico, which can be adopted and adapted by anyone, anywhere.
The Day of the Dead, or "Dia de los Muertos", is perhaps one of the most well known cultural events in Mexico. In the United States, this holiday can closely resemble Halloween on October 31st, but in many Spanish-speaking communities, the festivities can last for up to three days, from October 31st to November 2nd.
Traditionally, this was a period of time when it was believed that the dead could come back to the world of the living for a reunion with loved ones. The first day of celebrations, All Hallows Eve / October 31st, was said to be the day when the spirits of dead children, or little angels ("angelitos" in Spanish) returned to the world. The second day of celebrations, All Saints Day / November 1st, was reserved for the return of adult spirits. The third day, All Souls Day / November 2nd, was the day of reunion, when families could go to the cemetery and reunite with the dearly departed (Day, 2003).
Notice the emphasis on the dead, as opposed to the changing of the season or the end of a harvest period. In Mexico, Day of the Dead celebrations are very much a time for remembering those who have come and gone, as opposed to marking a change in season.
Many sources cite All Saints Day and All Souls Day as Catholic traditions, and in fact they are, which is why you can find Day of the Dead type celebrations outside of Mexico, as far away as Europe, Asia, and Oceania. You do not need to be Catholic, however, to honor and celebrate the dead, because death exists across all spiritual paths and across all cultures. I write this article about Day of the Dead celebrations from a secular perspective, so the information may be adopted by anyone of any spiritual persuasion.
All Hallows Eve / October 31st
When I first lived in Tijuana, Mexico, I was about two blocks away from two different schools, an elementary school and a middle school. On October 31st, nearly every child's face was painted like a skull, and many carried orange or yellow marigolds - sometimes pinned into the hair, sometimes fashioned into necklaces, and sometimes carried in hand to give away to friends or teachers.
The idea of trick-or-treating was known, thanks to popular culture and Tijuana's proximity to the US border, but it was not widely practiced. This does not mean that children were not spoiled with candy, but candies were usually traded among friends and family, and sometimes given away by business owners and teachers. The biggest event for the local community was the parade that marched through "el centro", or the downtown commercial district.
This following is not my video, but it shows the Day of the Dead parade in downtown Tijuana:
All Saints Day / November 1st
A family meal would occur on one of the three nights, depending on work schedules, but often on November 1st. These could be anything from a large gathering to a small, intimate affair. No matter the size of the feast, you could almost always count on seeing images of the departed assembled into altars, with some departed loved ones even being honored with an empty seat at the table, and a plate of food placed before it. I can remember one Day of the Dead meal when it was just me, my mom, and my sister. My mom built a small altar to celebrate her grandmother, her mother, one of her uncles, and my father. A small plate of food was set out for the four spirits to share, and my mother's uncle even got his own shot glass of tequila, as he would have liked to enjoy when he was alive.
It would be fair to mention that most Day of the Dead altars, complete with offerings to the departed and adorned with pictures and souvenirs from the deceased person's life, are not strictly put up and taken down during Day of the Dead celebrations. Some people keep their Day of the Dead altars up for the entire month of October, and sometimes for as long as one or two weeks into November.
All Souls Day / November 2nd
The next day I got the chance to accompany my Mexican cousins to the local cemetery to visit a couple of loved ones who I never got the chance to meet. We did not stay very long, no more than an hour, but the place was packed. If you have never seen a Mexican cemetery during the Day of the Dead, try to imagine a block party in a cemetery, and you have a good idea of what I saw.
As an American, especially an American war veteran, I generally considered cemeteries to be peaceful, somber places, where the dead were not to be disturbed - but my time in Tijuana turned that entire idea on its head. Across a landscape packed with headstones, I saw people laughing and eating on picnic blankets, setting up lawn chairs and canopy tents, and kids playing games like tag and hide-and-go-seek. Vendors walked around, selling everything from flowers to snacks, and roving musicians serenaded the living and the dead with traditional and modern Mexican ballads. I want to emphasize that these celebrations were not occurring adjacent to the cemetery, but literally right on top of the burial plots.
The following is not my video, but it shows what a cemetery in Tijuana looks like during Day of the Dead celebrations:
If you wanted to celebrate all three days, you could easily reserve October 31st for the costumes and candy (to entertain the spirits of the children who return to the world), November 1st for the family meal (to entertain the spirits of the adults who return to the world), and November 2nd for the reunion at the local cemetery (to entertain the spirits of loved ones who are buried nearby), but most people I knew in Mexico didn't actually celebrate Dia de Los Muertos across all three days. Some people squeeze everything into one or two days, if they celebrate the holiday at all.
Personally, since I don't have any kids to dress up, since I don't generally like crowds, and since all the dead people I know were cremated, my perfect Day of the Dead celebration would be a quiet night at home on October 31st, enjoyed with a good meal, a scary movie, in the company of a tiny altar dedicated to my father.
Final Message for Santa Muerte Devotees
What I've just described are the Day of the Dead traditions as I observed them when I lived in Tijuana, Mexico. There are many reasons for the way the holiday is observed today, including native customs from the pre-colonial era, traditions imported by Spanish conquistadors, and the influence of the Catholic church, but the purpose of this article was not to explore the history of the traditions, rather to document how modern people celebrate the holiday today, in the early 21st century.
I have written this information for devotees of Santa Muerte who wish to acknowledge death by observing the Day of the Dead holiday. Even though the traditions as I have explained them are from a Mexican perspective, as I witnessed them while living in Mexico, you do not need to be Mexican in order to observe the holiday, because death is a universal truth which crosses all borders and all cultures. Anyone can paint a skull on their face and trade candy treats, anyone can enjoy a meal with family and friends where the dead are honored, and anyone can visit a cemetery to check in on a loved one's burial plot.
Just as nobody can tell you how to build and maintain a relationship with Holy Death, so too can nobody tell you how to remember and celebrate those who have already crossed over. My biggest hope for this article was to give you some ideas on how you can remember and celebrate the dead from within your own spiritual tradition.
Day, F. A. (2003). Latina and Latino voices in literature: Lives and works. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.