5 Things You Didn’t Know About Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)

As a girl from Iowa that has been living in Mexico the last 6 years, I am excited to learn about and share this holiday and info with you guys!  We have so much to learn about this amazing country and the culture and traditions!  

In Mexico every year on November 1 and 2, we celebrate Día de Muertos. To be clear this is not Mexican Halloween. Dia de los Muertos is a very spiritual, respectful celebration and remembrance of loved ones that have passed on. Many of you have probably heard of it or seen beautiful photos from the festivities in many movies such as Coco and Spectre James Bond 007.  The festivities are all over Mexico and full of color, traditions and of course delicious food, my favorite part!   This deeply rooted celebration has a few aspects you may not know. 

Here are 8 things you may not know about Día de Muertos. Let me know in the comments which ones you knew and what was new to you!

What is on the Altars?

Diego an I at the Cancun airport on our way to Mexico City for Día de Muertos in 2018

First, let’s talk about the altars!  It has so much significance to break down but we will share a few.  We could probably write a whole blog post JUST about the altar!  In many homes, businesses and public places the altar is set up to honor the deceased.  This is the place where all the “favorites” of the ones that have passed on are placed.  This includes, but not limited to, the favorite meal, drinks, alcohol, candies, flowers with a photo of the ones that have passed on.  When Diego and I visited Mixquic in central Mexico, we were invited into a family’s home to view their altar.  They even gave us coffee, bread and let us in the house to film.  One of the family members told us they have been allowing people in their home to see the altars in Mixquic for at least 90 years. 

What is the significance of Sugar Skulls or Calaveras and Pan de Muerto?

Sugar Skulls

A Calavera is a skull made out of sugar and represents the departed soul who will return on November 1st or 2nd.  They are typically placed on gravesites or on an altar and are super vibrant in color and come in small, medium and large sizes.

Pan De Muerto (Bread of the Dead)

Photo courtesy of lecaroz.com

Pan de muerto is a sweet bread covered with white sugar with an X on top.  The X represents bones to remember the deceased and are placed on top of the circular bread to represent the circle of life. How cool is that?! Nowadays you can find pan de muerto in many different forms from being stuffed with ice cream or whipped cream fillings and even in different flavors!  YUM!

What is La Catrina?

Often in MANY decorated places for Day of the Dean in Mexico you will see a tall slender female skeleton usually dressed very fancy with a big hat and a beautiful dress. She is “La Catrina” or in English The Catrina.   She was created in 1910 by a controversial artist named Jesus Guadalupe Posada to REMIND the wealthy people that they too would end up dead like the poor or anyone else!  Now “La Catrina” is an iconic image associated with Día de Muertos worldwide.

Why so many Marigolds? What guides the spirits?

Marigolds are the bright orange flowers you will see all around the gravesites and the altars! Marigolds are also known as the flower of death (flor de la muerte).  Many people believe that the dead come back to visit these days so they use the marigolds to “light a path” or guide a spirit.   It is also believed that the scent of the flowers is what attracts the souls to the altars.  I’d come for a visit too with all the food and flowers set up, wouldn’t you?! 

What is an Alebrije? (Al-uh-bree-hay)

Alebrijes in Mexico City
Alebrijes in Mexico City

These crazy-looking “animals” are called an Alebrije (Al-uh-bree-hay)!  They were created by an artist called Pedro Linares from Mexico City.  While he was very sick these weird merges of images of animals came to him in his dreams. I don’t know if I could call it a dream or a nightmare! 

These mythical animals are usually bright in color and are more recently said to be “spirit guides” that help guide souls back to the altar.  This is represented in the movie Coco and has been a bit of controversy.   As it seems nice to portray Alebrijes that way it is not what is generally believed with Day of the dead.  

It is actually more traditionally known that Xolos or Xoloitzcuintli’s are Mexican hairless dogs that are known as spirit guides and are the official dogs of Mexico!

Why is the celebration 2 days?

Day of the Dead parade in Toluca

Short answer, different days for different souls!

We know that November 1 and 2 are both celebrated but why? On November 1st, all saints are welcome, this means that even the children will be welcomed back.  Traditionally we say that the 1st is to remember the children and the 2nd is to remember the adults.  Many times they even have special traditions to honor those who left in an accident like leaving them bread since they never got a last meal. Gosh how sweet and sad all at the same time!

Most of these beliefs are pre-hispanic, meaning before Mexico was invaded by Spain and catholicism.   Most of the beliefs from Day of the Dead originate more from the Aztecs of central Mexico, but because of the honor and love that this holiday has for the that have passed it is celebrated by people from all beliefs. 

Mexico City

One custom I just learned about is leaving a door open in the home so that the spirits can come in.  Depending on who you talk to and what part of Mexico you are in it could also be a window that should be left open. This shows the spirits that they are welcome to come into the home and visit their loved ones.

I really have enjoyed spending a few of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and learning from this side of the border!  I know that the last few years we have set up a small altar with a few photos of my family that has passed on, including a painting of my 23-year-old dog that passed away 2 years ago.  Makes me happy to think of the good memories! 

Did you know all of these things about Day of the Dead? Share with me your experiences in the comments if you have celebrated this holiday in Mexico and tell me what your favorite tradition is!


Would you like to come to Mexico for 2022 Day of the dead?  If you might be interested to experience this holiday yourself and in real life, please subscribe to my newsletter as that is the first place the trips we have coming up will be announced!  We will be creating trips to Mexico and would love to see you here! 

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