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 is often confused for Halloween on October 31st, but in fact Halloween and the Day of the Dead are two distinct celebrations, representing two thirds of a three day period of celebrations. I will discuss each day individually in the paragraphs that follow.
To be fair, all three days of celebration are technically days of the dead, and for this reason, albeit rare, you may hear all three days collectively referred to as Los Dias de los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead.
As you read further, take notice of the emphasis on the dead, as opposed to the changing of the season or the end of a harvest period. In Mexico, Halloween and 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.
Halloween / October 31st
Among modern Mexicans, the first day of celebrations, Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, on October 31st, is said to be the day when the spirits of dead children, or little angels ("angelitos" in Spanish) return to the world. I like to think of the costumes and candy being entirely for the entertainment of the spirits of the dead children who are allowed to walk among the living on this day.
Among strict Catholics, this day is actually reserved as a night of vigil for all that is hallowed, or considered holy, and is intended to mark the arrival of the next two days, All Saints Day on November 1st, and All Souls Day on November 2nd (more on these in a bit).
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 from door to door 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 a good example of a Halloween / All Hallows Eve parade in downtown Tijuana:
All Saints Day / November 1st
Among modern Mexicans, the second day of celebrations, All Saints Day / November 1st, is reserved for the return of adult spirits (Day, 2003). In the Catholic tradition, All Saints Day is reserved for celebration of those who have actually been sanctified by the church, which is where the reference to "All Saints" comes from, but those who celebrate a more liberal, or secular version, of this holiday tend to celebrate the dead in general, or perhaps those who made great contributions to society through their good works when they were alive.
In Catholicism, saints are often celebrated with a feast day, and since November 1st is related to "All Saints", November 1st is when many modern Mexicans will gather for a family meal to honor the dead. 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 All Saints "feast" 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.
Day of the Dead / November 2nd
In modern Mexico, it's the third day, the Day of the Dead ("Dia de los Muertos", in Spanish) on November 2nd, that is the day of reunion, when families can go to the cemetery and reunite with the dearly departed (Day, 2003).
Again, this is a little different among strict Catholics, who may refer to this day as All Souls Day, and as the celebration of all who have passed away, but modern and more secular traditions tend to reserve this day for celebrating loved ones who were actually known, or who are related to the living.
During my time in Tijuana I accompanied my Mexican cousins to the local cemetery on one Day of the Dead, and we visited the graves 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 on 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 know in Mexico don't actually celebrate Halloween, All Saints Day, and the Day of the Dead. 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 Days 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 Halloween / 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 Halloween, All Saints Day, and Day of the Dead holidays. Even though the traditions as I have explained them are from a modern Mexican perspective, as I witnessed them while living in Mexico, you do not need to be Mexican, or even Catholic, in order to observe the holidays, 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.