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Day of the Dead Festival Traditions

Like many festivals Day of the Dead is prepared for and carried out following the traditions that have lasted through the years. Mexico’s history has shaped the festival into what it is today and the past inhabitants have added their unique stamps on Dia de la Muertos so the Catholic feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day have been combined with the Hispanic rituals.

Wondering what Day of the Dead Festival is? Click to find out.

Just like with Christmas, Thanksgiving, Diwali and other big festivals around the world there are a lot of traditions to follow to get Day of the Dead just right. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most.

Altars (aka ofrendas)

altar at Day of the Dead Festival

The altars started popping up all over Oaxaca, the city I was staying in for the festival, at least a week before the Day of the Dead actually began. The altars are sacred – it’s how the souls will find their way back to their family. Altars are decorated with food, drink, sugar skulls, incense, candles, the soul’s favourite earthly things, and photos and flowers too.

The best altars, or ofrendas as they’re known in Spanish, are fabulously over the top. This one was made in the coffee shop near my hostel – they spent three days constructing it, two of them, I went back to the café every day to see how they were getting on.

You can see the altars in homes, work spaces, shops and restaurants throughout the festival. Some of my friends chose to build their own and dedicate them to their dead loved ones. Anyone can set one up.

Papel picado

Papel picado is like bunting, except more complicated. Mexicans will cut the outlines of skulls and skeletons into  the paper and then they’re hung up around the ofrendas, outside windows and between houses. The intricate designs of papel picado could take hours to cut but it all adds to the vibrancy of Day of the Dead.



Sugar coffins and sugar skulls are for sale everywhere. Mexicans give them to family, friends and lovers as a gift of friendship. You can even get them personalised. The idea behind giving a skull is to show that the love for that person is so strong, it will last well into the next life and transcend death. This is why the image of the skeletal bride and groom is so popular too.

The emphasis on using sugar to create these gift dates back to a time when locals couldn’t afford anything else, they had to learn how to craft sugar into their visions.

I’ve never seen so many skeletons and skulls in my life as I did in Oaxaca. Altars featured rows and rows from tiny little ones to almost life size. It’s well known that Mexicans would rather joke about death than fear it, and they use skeleton and skull imagery to show it. I started off thinking it was quite morbid, but came to really like it. It’s one of the best religious festivals around the world.


Day of the Dead flowers

Walk through the markets on the run up to Day of the Dead Festival and bright cargoes of gold and orange marigolds, cockscomb and baby’s breath burst from every third stall.

Placing flowers on the graves is another way to show how much you loved that person, and to give them a nice grave to come back to. Women will also put the flowers in their hair and stalls pop up around the graveyard to give everyone a chance to buy a bunch.


Food at Day of the Dead Festival

The food preparations in the home are seemingly never ending. Mole is really popular in Oaxaca and they’re proud of their unique 7 varieties. During the Day of the Dead Festival it’s served spicy with chicken and turkey. Tamales and enchiladas are also popular and street stalls selling chocolate and sweet coffee from huge clay pots called café de la ollas are sure to have queues.

It’s important to give the spirits the things they loved in life, often this translates as creating complicated dishes to please them. Special foods are created to nourish the living and the dead and the feasting is one of the biggest ways to celebrate.

Celebrants buy traditional three-legged ceramic burners to keep the food warm up at the vigil through the night.

Pan de Muerto is baked especially. It’s a special orange or anise flavoured bread that’s shaped into skulls, bones and skeletons, and is only available around Day of the Dead Festival. This ‘bread of the dead’ is used to decorate ofrendas and graves as well as being a treat for the living. Made into a circular shape to represent the circle of life, it’s common in Oaxaca to get the Pan de Muerto with a hot chocolate and dip it in. I tried this and it was delicious.

Sand sculptures

san sculptures at day of the dead festival

In the streets, at the altars and in front of houses you’ll find these brilliant sand sculptures crafted to depict images of death. There are even some on the graves at the Xoxocotlan Cemetery.


Comparsas at Day of Dead Fetsival

Comparsas are huge in Oaxaca City. This is when masked celebrants, known as mummers, parade and dance through the streets. The whole aim is to encourage the return of any souls who might be lingering.

Monos de Calenda – huge papier-mache puppets – are a key feature of these comparsas, along with fireworks. The Monos de Calendas entertain people before all the action begins and so people know that the parades are coming. I got caught up in about three of these and had a great time dancing around to the music and watching the fancy dress as it went by.

The traditions of Day of the Dead Festival are what keeps it so vibrant and fascinating – show me another festival where you dance around dressed up as a dead person, sipping on hot chocolate and trying to catch the sweets as they fall from the comparsa’s pinata ball. Exactly!