11 Customs and Traditions Followed on the Day of the Dead

Many people have a wrong notion that Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’ in November and US Halloween are the same. Though they are related to one another, there is a great difference in the tone and traditions of both days. The theme of Halloween is terror and fear and mischief, but that of the ‘Day of Dead’ is demonstrating respect and love for the deceased members of families. This festivity gets unfolded over two days. There are various kinds of ‘Day of the Dead’ activities that are carried out throughout Mexico during the time. It is very interesting to note that along with local people, many travelers and tourists also participate in the festivities by following Mexican traditions and customs. 

We will discuss these in detail here:   


Building a traditional altar is one of the most important and prominent ‘Dia de los Muertos’ traditions and customs in Mexico. The platform is built for providing a place of residence to the dead and departed souls. The creation of the dais takes place inside homes, at local cemeteries as well as in public places like museums etc. The display of the altar is done in bright colors and decked with favorite personal items and foods of the deceased person.

Different levels are also created in the structure. Along with traditional incense, sweet bread, marigold flowers and religious imagery, four elements of nature (wind, earth, water and fire) are presented in different forms on the altar. Taking a look at the total arrangements on the platform, it is possible to gauge all favorite things of the deceased person.  

Dia de muertos Altar.jpg
By Luisroj96, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Dia de los Angelitos 

The ‘Day of the Dead’ is celebrated for three long days in November. The day before the main celebration is known as ‘Dia de los Angelitos’ or ‘Day of the Little Angels or Children’s Day’. This day is dedicated to children, who are no more. Parents often create an altar, either in the graveyard or in their home and leave various kinds of items that were the kid’s favorite like toys, games, balloons, foods, drinks etc. It is believed that the spirits of children descend to the world at this time. 

Festival of Altars at Dia de los Muertes - Day of the Dead San Francisco 2009

Literary Calavera  

Citizens of Mexico have a rich cultural heritage and they can be defined by two specific terms – creativity and wit. A snapshot of this culture can be seen in the literary Calavera, which is a specialty of the ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations. These are actually verses or poems, which deal with death with satire, irony or just humor. It is difficult to trace the history of these literary works, but they have made a great impact on Mexican culture and history.  

DARKNESS (9834946384).jpg
By DARKNESS, CC BY 2.0, Link

Making Offerings (Ofrendas) 

The offerings that are made on the altars on ‘Dia de los Muertos’ in November are known as ofrendas. These can be at home or in the graveyard, where the deceased person rests in peace. The Ofrendas include the person’s favorite personalized items, his/her photographs, foods including sweet bread, drinks and various items which they loved. Alcohol is also offered at various places. It is like appeasing the departed souls and the dead to come and enjoy the things that they loved. A festive ambience is created at the place so that the spirits feel at home. Books and clothes are also offered as ofrendas.  

Ofrendas en altar.jpg
By JMndz, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Papel Picado

These are colorful flags that are closely associated with the day. If you see closely, you will find that these flags tend to light up a space or even the whole street. Cemeteries are also decorated with these flags. Such flags are also seen commonly in various festivals and restaurants in Mexico. The flags are made up of fine color paper. Series of images or a single image is cut on the flags, which are integrally associated with the ‘Day of the Dead’ traditions. Skeletons in a happy mood, singing and dancing are the most common patterns on the paper cuttings.  

Papel picado in Tijuana - paper banners - Dia de los Muertos 5442.jpg
By Thirty two, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The Calavera Catrina 

La Catrina is a highly emblematic character, which is represented on this special day in November. La Catrina is nothing but a skeletal lady, which was created with makeup for bringing aristocracy and elegance to the Day of the Dead activities and celebrations. Catrin is the main source of the word Catrina, which stands for a distinguished, well-dressed gentleman, who has his partner as a company. This celebration is done to denote that everyone in society is equal.  

La Calavera Catrina, 18th station mural, Pilsen, Chicago

Mexican Marigolds (cempasuchiles)  

Celebrating ‘Dia de los Muertos’ would be incomplete without the use of cempasuchiles, which are Mexican marigolds. Altars and other places like buildings, stores, parks etc. in Mexico are adorned with these flowers prolifically during these festive times. These flowers have a sweet aroma and very distinctive color and texture. The color of the flower is so bright that it seems to lighten up the whole space effortlessly. It is considered that the petals of these flowers act as walkways for the deceased and departed souls so that the dead can come to the earth to meet with their loved ones.  

Tagetes erecta (cempasuchil) - flor de Día de Muertos - Closeup - 2.jpg
By ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Sugar Skulls (Calavera de Azucar) 

Sugar skulls are one of the main attractions of the ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico. If you notice, you will see that these sugar skulls are either created at home or purchased. The term ‘sugar skull’ actually comes from the festivities related to the occasion. These skulls act as emblematic symbols globally. These are usually used to decorate the place or are added to the altar.

In most cases, it has been seen that the name of the deceased person is written on the forehead of the skull with the help of icing in different colors. Sugar versions are traditional, however, biscuit and chocolate ‘sugar skull’ are also available and are quite popular. These look pretty with different colored icings.  

Calaveras - sugar skulls - Dia de los Muertos - Tijuana 5422.jpg
By Thirty two, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Holding the Graveside Vigils 

There are many rituals and actions which are closely related to ‘Dia de los Muertos’ traditions. Holding Graveside vigils is one of them. However, many people prefer staying at home on the night before the ‘Day of the Dead’ and during the early hours of the day in November. Many communities of Mexico believe in holding graveside vigils in honor of the dead and deceased people and the departed souls belonging to families or close friends.

This trend is very popular in Patzcuaro and Michoacán, where residents of the area take boats to Isla de Janitzio. These boats are colloquially known as mariposas, meaning butterfly in their language. In the cemetery of the island, the dead are honored in the best possible manner.  

Día de muertos en Mixquic XI.jpg
By J Mndz, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link


In many Mexican cities, festival takes place on the most prominent and important streets. An important component of the festival is the parade that takes place with exceptionally decorated floats. These floats are designed and decorated in such a manner that they look like floating flower clouds with particular kinds of themes. If you want to explore such a festivity, visit the city center, el Zocalo in Mexico by passing through the Reforma Avenue. There are innumerable revelers on the streets with the makeup of the dead.  

As you proceed towards the city center, you will see many large and colorful looking creatures, which resemble dinosaurs and similar animals and these are known as alebrijes. The creatures that are made are often a combination of various animals, giving them a weird appearance. Mexicans regard these as the creatures of their dreams, who actually belong to their families and the realm of the dead.  


Decorated Calacas 

Did you know that decorated, clothed and colorful skeleton figurines are known as calacas? Well, you must have seen these many times but did not know that they had a specific name. Mexico is closely associated with calacas and sugar skulls. And this is the reason that display of such figures take place in Mexico all-round the year in someplace or the other. However, on ‘Dia de los Muertos’ or ‘Day of the Dead’, these figurines are brought out for display in the whole country.

In the majority of the cases, the skeleton figurines are dressed immaculately for the occasion. The attire is long and often royal, just like traditional Mexican costumes. In many places, jewelry and accessories are also provided along with the dress to make a complete appearance. These calacas are then displayed on the main road so that local people and tourists can have a glimpse of the thing.  

Calacas elegantes.JPG
By Merystef, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Along with the above-mentioned customs and traditions, which are followed on ‘Dia de los Muertos’ or ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico in November, another interesting thing is sharing stories regarding the people who are dead and no more. Amusing memories and anecdotes are shared about the dead people and this is an integral part of the festivities.

Happy memories and funny incidents are remembered as people have a notion that the deceased people must be remembered cheerfully by their friends, families and loved ones. Though in popular culture, this tradition is evaded, but when it comes to oral traditions and customs in the culture of Mexico, this is an important part.