Sugar skulls and altars: Mexico celebrates Day of the Dead

Dancing Calacas (skeletons)! Chocolate coffins!…and Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead)! Celebrated on October 31 (Young Souls Day), November 1 (All Saints Day) and 2 (All Souls Day), Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most important holidays paying homage to the dearly departed. While traditions vary from state to state, there are some standard features that unify these celebrations and make them an incredible display of culture and tradition.

Since prehispanic times, it is believed that on these days, the souls of the departed return to visit living relatives and eat and drink as they did when alive. Families gather to honour their ancestors through ofrendas (altars), typically decorated with cempasuchil (marigolds), candles, photographs of the departed and the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages, as well as many other small trinkets, including small coffins, often with pop-up skeletons. These altars range in size and are placed both in homes and at the gravesites.

Calaveras (skulls) form an important part of Day of the Dead celebrations. Originally, skulls and skeletons were represented inhe art of prehispanic Mexico, particularly the Aztec civilization which ruled much of Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. The skull also forms an important part of the altar, where they are decorated with paper foil for eyes and colored icing for hair. Names can be added to the skull and Mexican children often exchange named skulls with their 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.

Another must is pan de muertos, made with anise, sugar, butter, eggs, flour, yeast and orange peel, and decorated with strips of dough simulating bones. It is tradition for families to come together and share bread in remembrance of the dearly departed. Another traditional dish is the tasty calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin), prepared with cinnamon and brown sugar.

The use of the calavera extends beyond Day of the Dead. Nineteenth-century Mexican artist and printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913) used the image to comment on the political corruption and social inequities of his time by depicting politicians and legendary figures into a world of skeletons and skulls. He produced more than 900 illustrations throughout his lifetime that are still used today. One of his most famous drawings is that of La Catrina, who is elegantly dressed to go out with her great feathered hat. The figure poked fun at the French-styled ladies of his era, that is to say, they imitated the fashions of France.

While the entire nation celebrates Day of the Dead, some of the liveliest displays are in Janitzio, Michoacan; Oaxaca City, Oaxaca; and the village of Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City. Other noteworthy festivities are held in Merida, Yucatan; Huejutla, Hidalgo; Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas; and Jesus Maria, Nayarit.

Oaxaca, Oaxaca State
For one of Mexico’s most colorful and magical displays of Day of the Dead, visit Oaxaca City in Oaxaca. Local markets burst with preparatory activities, and playful skeleton imagery adorns storefronts and home windows. The festival formally begins on October 31st, where families pay honor to their ancestors or deceased loved ones with the careful and sometimes elaborate construction of an in-house altar. Over the years, the altars have evolved into objects of art, making this celebration a true exhibition. Typically, homes are open to those interested in paying homage to their dead.

Throughout the three days, the city arranges events at the local San Miguel Cemetery, such as 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, ghosts and other aspects of death.

Another mainstay during the festivities is the Oaxacan mole negro (black mole), a rich sauce consisting of more than twenty different spices and considered the “king of moles” in the region. Typically served in tamales, the savory paste is enjoyed by both the living and the dead. For more information, visit

Janitzio, Michoacan State
In the heart of southern Michoacan State is Lake Patzcuaro, home to the island of Janitzio. The island of nearly 1500 inhabitants is renowned for its impressive and colorful Day of the Dead celebrations. Pre-preparations abound as many families even grow their own cempasuchils, believing that doing so is more appropriate for their offerings. The squares fill with stands that offer all types of colourful figures allusive to death, the most popular made of sugar.

At night, boats are decorated with candles and flowers, loaded with local villagers and visitors who are taken to the island’s cemetery. There they spend the night, summoning back the dead in celebration as the sounds of bells ringing, people chanting and the smell of incense fill the air. The following evening, fishermen paddle their torch-lit canoes around the lake, where they do a performance of butterfly net throwing.

Once the sun sets, the dancing begins. The Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Old Men) native of Michoacan State and believed to date from prehispanic times is performed as a ritual honoring the Sun. To get to the island, it is necessary to take small boats that run frequently throughout the day. For more information, visit

Mixquic, Mexico City
Only 25 miles southeast of Mexico City is the village of Mixquic, a magnet for visitors and locals during Day of the Dead. The area takes on a busy and festive air in the final days of October as merchants set up street stands to hawk their wares for the Day of the Dead. In the cemetery, all family burial plots are elaborately embellished with an array of earthly delights in the hope of luring departed spirits.

Each year, a street fair is held from October 30 to November 2 that fills the village streets fanning out from the main plaza. Similar to the Halloween tradition in the United States, on the night of Oct. 31, children go from house to house asking for goodies. Most homes have large, intricate altars for Day of the Dead. Children kneel at the altar and recite prayers before being offered food-gifts. Then, they move on to the next home repeating the same ritual of kneeling and prayers. To light their way, children carry carved green and white chilacayote (squash), which look incredibly similar to jack-o-lanterns.

As darkness falls upon Mixquic, the glow of thousands of votive candles illuminates the way for the dead. At midnight they are called home with the mournful tolling of bells. Then each soul is lovingly remembered with recitations of the Rosary. The food-laden street fair roars outside the church graveyard, villagers descend upon the cemetery with food, drink, candles and cempasuchil. For more information, visit

More information:
Mexico Tourism,