Hanging skull figures at Day of the Dead festival — Getty Images

How does Mexico City celebrate the Day of the Dead?

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Mexico City — and the rest of the country — is preparing for its Day of the Dead (Día de Los Muertos) festival. We have its route, date, history, and traditions for you

Despite its name — Día de Los Muertos — hinting more at loss and sadness, the annual Day of the Dead parade, starting on Thursday, November 2 and ending at midnight on Friday, November 3, 2023, is a celebration of life. All day long, visitors can participate in workshops and activities all around the route of the parade.

The history of the Day of the Dead celebrations

Skull figure for Day of the Dead celebrations — Getty ImagesThe Day of the Dead is a Mexican festival honoring deceased loved ones — Getty Images

Mexico City manages the incredible feat of being both the oldest capital city in the Americas and having an economy the same size as that of Peru. Founded in 1325 by the Aztecs, it expanded over the next 200 years to engulf the surrounding settlements until, in 1521, it was destroyed by the invading Spanish, who then decided to rebuild the city almost as it was, with the minor alteration of replacing all of the Aztec temples with Catholic churches.

The Day of the Dead dates back almost 3,000 years and was originally a month-long celebration during what a modern-day calendar would define as August. It was only during the 20th century that the festival took on the form it currently takes, that of honoring the death of infants on November 1, followed by adults the next day.

What happens in Mexico City?

Day of the Dead dancers — Getty ImagesFar from a depressing affair, Mexico City becomes one big party — Getty Images

Although they do acknowledge the celebrations in the capital, it seems it’s far more likely you’ll see the spiritual side in smaller towns and villages. Mexico City uses it as an excuse for a party — there are face painting and costumes, static displays of sculpture (giant skulls and so forth), and displays of dance and art, all centered around the Plaza de la Constitución (the huge public square also known as the Zócalo).

Meet la Calavera Catrina

The poster girl for the Day of the Dead was originally made as a satire by Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1913 and is now the inspiration for a lot of costumes — ShuttertockLa Calavera Catrina, the Day of the Dead mascot — Shutterstock

Calavera Catrina is the poster girl for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Originally having nothing to do with the festival, she was a satirical character created by Mexican illustrator and printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. The character is a skeleton that harks back to the original Aztec art of the region, dressed in early 20th-century women’s fashions.

It was a jab at the upper-classes who were seen as trying too hard to adopt bourgeois European fashions and ideas in pre-revolutionary Mexico. The 1948 work Sueño de Una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central by Diego Rivera cemented the character in Mexico’s popular consciousness.

It is now she who is the most apparent character if you look around, the poignant political undertones of an elite ignoring the plight of the downtrodden matching perfectly with the date.

What are some Day of the Dead traditions?

The traditional way to celebrate the festival revolves around making altars and taking them to graveyards and cemeteries — ShutterstockAltars are made for the dead and taken to their graves — Shutterstock

Traditionally, the festival revolves around making altars for the deceased to be taken to the graveyards and cemeteries. Graves will be cleaned and covered in the altars, which will include favorite foods and drinks of the deceased, as well as toys for children, and blankets and pillows to aid the sleep of the dead.

In smaller towns, people will spend all night with their families next to the graves of their loved ones. Such happens in the small community of San Andres Mixquic, approximately 50 kilometers southeast of Mexico City’s center.

This is a well-known place for Day of the Dead celebrations and, as night falls, the lights of thousands upon thousands of colorful candles flicker and light up the church and the graveyard that surrounds it. The smell of incense fills the air, as well as the smell of food.

Due to its relative proximity to the capital, this has become a place of modern pilgrimage for locals and tourists alike, with all of the trappings this brings. The reverence of the churchyard is at odds with the smell of the grilling tortillas and the sounds of the mariachi bands playing outside.

What’s the Day of the Dead parade route in Mexico City?

Due to the popularity of the festival, the parade route will be packed not only with locals but with travelers from around the world who have come to see the spectacle; not coincidentally, the route passes many of Mexico City’s main sights. The parade begins at the Puerta de Leones in Chapultepec Park before heading along Paseo de la Reforma, then turning eastward on the Avenida Hidalgo. Ending in the Zócalo in the center of the city, it also passes such monuments as the Angel of Independence, the Cuauhtémoc Monument, and the Alameda Central public park.

Woman with painted face at Day of the Dead parade — Getty ImagesMexico City’s parade is attended by locals and tourists alike — Getty Images

Of course, the parade is just one of the many ways the festival is celebrated around the country. The traditions of each region vary; for example, in the cities in recent years, children have taken to dressing up and going from house to house knocking on doors, or asking people on the street for sweets or money, similar to how Halloween is celebrated in the US and the UK.

The increasingly touristy nature of the festival, however, still doesn’t detract from what it is. Unusual though it may seem to European sensibilities to celebrate death, it’s a time when families and friends come together to celebrate the lives of those who have gone before. A time of great joy and remembrance, and of course, a time to celebrate everyone that you still have with you.

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