Day of the Dead Festivals Around the World

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Catrinas, one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico - via Wikipedia

While the term “Day of the Dead” might strike fear in those who watch too many zombie shows, there’s no need to worry about the undead stalking the streets. In fact, Day of the Dead festivities are often great fun.

Day of the Dead, called Dia de los Muertos in Latin cultures, is a celebration of the lives of those who have died. This special day is celebrated around the world, typically between October 31 and November 2.

In Roman Catholic cultures, Day of the Dead corresponds with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. However, you don’t need to be Catholic, or even Christian, to join in the celebrations.

Day of the Dead events vary from country to country. In some cultures, families gather at cemeteries for somber remembrances of their loved ones, but in others, entire communities turn out for citywide parades and parties.


Pre-Hispanic societies in Mexico celebrated Day of the Dead more than 2,500 years ago. Early cultures often kept the skulls of their ancestors and displayed them during special ceremonies to honor death and rebirth.

During the rule of the Aztecs, Day of the Dead was celebrated in August, with a month of festivities. The Aztec tradition centered on the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead.

After Spain conquered Mexico, many indigenous communities converted to Catholicism. However, the Day of the Dead celebration remained part of the culture and was incorporated into All Saints’ Day festivities.


In the tradition of Day of the Dead, celebrants believe that the dead return to delight in the earthly pleasures they enjoy while still alive. Dead relatives return in spirit form to visit with living family members for a few hours and then go back to their eternal world.

Many cultures believe that the spirits of dead children return before adults. For this reason, deceased children are often honored on November 1 and adults are celebrated on November 2.

Certain items, including candles, incense and marigolds are believed to encourage the dead to return for a visit. Families often spread marigold petals along cemetery paths or adorn mausoleums with marigolds and candles.

While mortals can’t see the dead return, some people who attend Day of the Dead events say they can feel the manifestations of their departed loved ones. Celebrants often spare no expense on the gifts they bring to cemeteries, believing spirits will become angry if they receive cheap presents.


Mexican communities celebrate the spirits of departed children on November 1 and those of adults on November 2. Both days are national holidays and communities throughout the country hold festivals and celebrations, large and small.

Dia de los Muertos events often include specially prepared foods, such as pan de los muertos, bread shaped like skulls, or skull- or coffin-shaped candies.

Families usually create small alters on grave-sites and bring the deceased’s favorite dishes. Some regions have created traditions around the types of food offered to the dead. For instance, residents in Merida prepare special chicken tamales, which they cook in underground pits.

Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations are often quite festive. Some communities hold parades and street parties, where participants carry mock coffins and prance around in skeleton costumes.


Before the Spanish conquered Bolivia, Bolivians exhumed their dead relatives to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Celebrants danced with the corpses and posed them at festival tables before returning them to their graves.

Today, Bolivians celebrate Dia de los Muertos in a more subdued manner. Family members often dress like their dead relatives and hold parties at grave-sites. Celebrants ask advice of the dead and hold conversations about the events of the previous year.

Bolivians who still hold the skeletons or skulls of their deceased relatives carry the bones to local chapels to receive religious blessings. Many older Bolivians believe skulls have the power to keep them from harm, like a special good luck charm.

At the end of Dia de los Muertos, children chase the costumed celebrants out of the cemetery with palm fronds to dissuade the spirits from remaining among the living.


In Peru, family and friends gather at cemeteries to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Celebrants prepare special foods, such as roast guinea pig, to enjoy a feast with the spirits. Most celebrations include beer and by midday somber remembrances often turn into fiestas.

For gifts, Peruvians bring items once enjoyed by their departed loved ones. For instance, if the deceased was a smoker, he will get a fresh pack of cigarettes on Dia de los Muertos.

In poor communities, nuns from local churches use Dia de los Muertos as an opportunity to raises funds for food programs or orphanages. The sisters shape and paint plastic drink bottles to make decorative flower vases, which celebrants buy to adorn graves.

On Dia de los Muertos, Peruvians typically clean and repair the grave-sites of their loved ones. Poor Peruvians typically bury their family members in the ground, while middle- and upper-class citizens inter loved ones in mausoleums. Poor families hire gravediggers to re-shape mounds on graves, while wealthier celebrants place flowers and touch up paint on mausoleums markers.

Once celebrants have finished paying their respects to the dead another party begins. In many towns, food and drink venders set up booths outside cemeteries, in which celebrants dance and sing until dawn the next day.


Filipinos celebrate Day of the Dead, also known as Araw ng mga Patay, on November 2. This national tradition was established in the tenth century by the Roman Catholic Church and remains a religious event today.

Religious Filipinos celebrate Araw ng mga Patay at church, where they attend mass and offer prayers for deceased loved ones. The prayers are typically directed toward souls in purgatory and are intended to help ease their suffering and purify their spirits.

At churches throughout the Philippines, celebrants light candles and adorn alters with flowers. The candles represent the love still felt for the departed and the hope that they will one day reach the gates of heaven.

After mass, family members go to cemeteries, where they clean and repair grave-sites. Celebrants light candles at graves and enjoy an afternoon of fun, with card games, food and drink, dancing and singing.


Spaniards commemorate Dia de los Muertos on All Saints’ Day, November 1. The Spanish celebration is more restrained than in some other countries, but still rich with tradition.

Families visit cemeteries and add fresh flowers to graves, and throughout the country bakeries sell special sweets. In Catalonia, celebrants eat castanada, a special meal prepared with sweet potatoes and chestnuts.

The liveliest Spanish Day of the Dead festival takes place in Cadiz. Locals celebrate the day dressed in funny costumes, such as such roasted pigs, and make dolls out of local fruits.

Throughout Spain, it is tradition to see a live performance of the play “Don Juan Tenorio”, the story of the mythical lady’s man Don Juan. It is the longest-running play in the country and Spanish theaters have offered All Saints’ Day performances for more than 100 years.

United States

In the United States, Day of the Dead is primarily celebrated in communities with large populations of Mexican immigrants. Festivities vary from place to place, ranging from solemn family gatherings, to parades and street parties.

Communities in Arizona and Texas offer traditional Mexican Dia de los Muertos festivities. Some celebrations include rituals adopted from pagan harvest festivals. In certain southwest communities, people wear masks and carry urns filled with written prayers offered on behalf of the spirits.

The annual Day of the Dead celebration in San Francisco, California is a bit more intercultural than most. Arts organizations, such as the de Young Museum and SomArts Cultural Center, often participate by hosting special exhibitions.

Communities throughout the Bay Area host Day of the Dead parades. The San Francisco event takes place in the Mission district, and usually features a parade and people dressed in elaborate Aztec and skeleton costumes. After the parade, celebrants enjoy a huge street party, with live music, beer, wine and traditional Mexican cuisine.


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