Day of the Dead

Display of Dead of the Dead skulls inspired by the artwork of Frieda Kahlo

Photo by Rulo Luna Ramos on Flickr

Day of the Dead is an increasingly popular occasion around the world. Every year colourful processions, music, song, and candlelit vigils draw thousands of people to celebrate Day of the Dead in towns and cities across Mexico, other Latin American countries, and places with large Hispanic populations. There are also events in places where people are simply interested in this positive approach to death.

This guide explains the meaning and history of Day of the Dead and how the festival is celebrated in Mexico and around the world.

What is Day of the Dead?

Photo of people with painted faces and traditional costumes at a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico

Photo by Cordelia Persen on Flickr

Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is an annual festival celebrated in Mexico and other countries in Latin America, which celebrates the memory of people who have died with colourful carnivals, costumes, art and food. This festival of the dead features parades where people dress up and paint their faces, and more traditional rituals such as visiting cemeteries and creating shrines to loved ones who have died.

It might sound similar to Halloween, but Day of the Dead is about remembering loved ones who have died and welcoming them back to our world for a brief celebration, not about being scared by ghosts or ghouls.

Photo of Mexican woman visiting the grave of a loved one who has died on Day of the Dead

Photo by Rama on Flickr

Where is Day of the Dead celebrated?

Day of the Dead is mostly associated with Mexico, where it is a public holiday. But, it is also celebrated across Latin America and at events in countries around the world, including in the UK.

There are many longstanding celebrations of it in parts of the USA with large Hispanic communities, such as California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Photo of two women in skull facepaint and floral head-dresses at a Day of the Dead festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Photo by Larry Lamas on Flickr

When is Day of the Dead celebrated?

Day of the Dead is celebrated from 31 October to 2 November.

1 November is Day of the Innocents ( Día de los Inocentes) which celebrates the memory of children who have died. 2 November is The Day of the Dead. People often start the festivities on 31 October, when some people believe that the angels of little children (angelitos) visit their families. People who died when they were older are supposed to appear on 1 and 2 November.

What is the meaning of Day of the Dead?

In Mexico, Day of the Dead is both an important cultural and spiritual celebration and a time to mourn and remember the dead with dignity and respect. It is celebrated with traditions such as visiting cemeteries where loved ones are buried, and even sleeping overnight in them, alongside modern carnivals with floats and costumes.

The opening scenes of the James Bond movie, Spectre, which was released in 2015, featured a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City.

The first ever Day of the Dead parade in the city was in 2016...inspired by the design of the movie-version of it!


Some Mexicans for whom Dia de Muertos is an important tradition are concerned that these large events are aimed at tourists and prefer to celebrate Day of the Dead quietly with their families.

Photo of Mexican family visiting the grave of a person who has died, decorated wiht marigolds for Day of the Dead

Photo by Jazzbeck on Flickr

What happens on Day of the Dead?

The observation of Day of the Dead in Mexico can vary between different states and urban and rural areas, but generally combines old rituals and modern festivities. Traditions of the Day of the Dead include:

  • Creating shrines called ofrendas in their homes or in cemeteries where loved ones are buried, with offerings of food, drink and other things that they enjoyed during their lifetime.

Photo of large model skeleton lying on a bed of marigolds and decorated with candles and food

Photo by Carl Campbell on Flickr

  • Some people sleep overnight in the cemeteries.
  • Making paper decorations called papel picado with pierced illustrations of skeletons and other images associated with the dead.
  • Attending festivals and parades along the main streets of towns and cities. Many parades feature large sculptures or puppets of mythical creatures called alebrijes, that live in the realm of the dead.

Photo of a large model of a colourful monster, or alebrije, at a Day of the Dead festival

Photo by Tristan Higbee on Flickr

  • Wearing fancy dress and face-paint, often in a particular style calledLa Catrina inspired by the artwork of José Guadalupe Posada. Some people also wear clothes made from oil cloth that is made in Mexico and was popularised by the artist Frieda Kahlo. Shells are popular accessories to clothing because of the noise they make, which can call the dead to people wearing them.
  • Eating special food, such as sweet bread rolls called bread of the dead (Pan de Muertos), mole negro, Aztec soup and tortilla soup.

Photo of bread of the dead on a white table cloth scattered with marigolds

Photo by Carnaval.com Studios on Flickr

Sugar skulls (calaca) are perhaps the most famous Day of the Dead food, but are actually very hard and decorated with sequins, so you are not supposed to eat them!

Photo of sugar skulls decorated with woolen hair and sequins on a shelf

Photo by © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

What is the history of Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead combines the influences of the ancient Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua peoples who inhabited the land of what is now Mexico before it was colonised by Spanish conquistadores in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The pre-Hispanic population did not mourn people who had died because they believed that death was a part of life and grief was disrespectful to them. Instead they chose to celebrate the memory of their lives. The celebrations were lead by the Lady of the Dead (Mictecacihuatl).

In Catholicism 1 November is All Saints Day, when believers pray for people who are in Heaven, and 2 November is All Souls Day, when they pray for everyone who has died. 31 October is Halloween, a secular tradition, which originated in Christianity as All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day.

The conquistadores successfully enforced their Catholic beliefs on the indigenous population and although the ancient rituals survived, they became focused on the dates in the Catholic calendar most closely associated with it: All Souls Day and All Saints Day.

The current traditions and rituals of Day of the Dead combine these beliefs with more recent innovations that have shaped the design of the food, costumes and art associated with it.

What type of offerings are made at Ofrendas on Day of the Dead?

Photo of Mexican Day of the Dead shrine decorated with skeletons, bread, fruit, candles and paper decorations

Photo by Cordelia Persen on Flickr

  • Sugar skulls
  • Bread of the dead
  • Flowers, such as Marigolds (Cempazuchitl)
  • Candles or battery-powered lanterns
  • Toys and gifts, such as small wooden skeletons
  • Decorative objects with skull, bones and flower motifs
  • Cigarettes and favourite tipples

What do the art and costumes of Day of the Dead look like?

Collage of two prints of calaveras by José Guadalupe Posada depicting anthropomorphic skeletons, which inspired the design of costume and floats for Day of the Dead

Images by José Guadalupe Posada on Public Domain Review (public domain)

Many of the costumes, floats and even food, such as sugar skulls, associated with Day of the Dead have a very distinctive image. The art of Day of the Dead is strongly influenced by the work of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist who produced illustrations called calaveras, named after the Spanish word for skulls, which feature in them.

Collage of two prints of calaveras by José Guadalupe Posada depicting anthropomorphic skeletons, which inspired the design of costume and floats for Day of the Dead

Images by José Guadalupe Posada on Public Domain Review (public domain)

Skull makeup, flower garlands and flowing Edwardian-style gowns in the style of Gaudelupe's calaveras, called La Catrina are worn by many people who participate in Day of the Dead festivals and celebrations.

Photo of skeleton models in Edwardian style costumes on a seafront in Mexico

Photo by Andrew Milligan Sumo on Flickr

You can find out more about Death Around the World in our guides to funeral Tradition and Culture.