Symbolic Saturdays – El Dia de los Muertos


A few years ago we packed up our life in Surrey and moved to Central Mexico for 16 months. We’ve enjoyed visiting the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende for nearly 10 years as some of our dearest friends have settled there. Presented with the opportunity do live a little differently for a while, we jumped at the chance to spend some time in a place we love surrounded by some of our best friends. Mexico is a land of contrasts and often misrepresented in Western media. At its heart are dazzling colours, love and warmth coupled with a deep reverence for family.  


When travelling I love to immerse myself in the culture. El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a national holiday celebrated in Mexico every 1st and 2nd November. The highly symbolic festival has its roots in a fusion of traditions found in Europe and Mesoamerica – particularly the Aztecs. Dia de los Muertos honours deceased loved ones who are guided home to enjoy offerings left for them on meticulously crafted altars. Mexicans believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on 1st November and the spirits of all deceased children are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. Then on 2nd November, the spirits of adults come down to join in the party! And let me tell you – you haven’t partied until you’ve partied in Mexico!


During this time, just about every street turns into a party with colourful flowers, flags, music, markets and parades with people pounding the music filled streets with their cantina skeleton painted faces, flower crowns and costumes. It’s incredible to be a part of this colourful celebration of LIFE! The festivities continue in cemeteries where people decorate their ancestors graves with flowers and candles. It’s also not unusual to have a party at the graveside so you’ll see mariachi bands playing, fully laden picnic baskets, tequila and families reminiscing about their loved ones. 

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Everyone prepares an altar to honour their loved ones. In most homes during this time of year there will be an altar to family as well as more community based altars that crop up all over town whether in workplaces, galleries, restaurants, shops, parks and more. They are spectacular. We loved spending our time meandering through town looking at all the beautiful altars and watching people celebrate their loved ones. Decorated with candles, bunches of marigolds, mounds of fruit and pan de Muerto (day of the dead bread). The altar needs to have lots of food and drinks for the spirits and toys and sweets are left for children. 

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There is incredible symbolism to Dia Los Muertos altars and every element (or Ofrendas) carries a specific meaning. 

  • Calaveras (skulls) – representations of deceased relatives. Made of sugar or chocolate and often eaten by children after the celebration, they are an example of the Mexican ability to celebrate and play with death.

  • The White Cross – made of chalk or lime and drawn on the ground under the altar. It originally represented the four cardinal points corresponding to the four elements.

  • A Banquet– to celebrant the arrival of the deceased loved ones. As well as the deceased’s favourite food, altars usually content traditional Dia Los Muertos food such as Pan de Muerto, rice, mole, sugar cane, jicama and oranges – the fruits of the season.

  • Water – a glass of water is often placed on the alter to quench the thirst of the deceased and strengthen them for their return journey.

  • Flowers – not just a beautiful addition but also there is symbolism in the colours. Yellow flowers are a guide for the spirits to the mortal world. White flowers represent the sky and purple flowers are the traditional colour of mourning in Mexico.

  • Incense – a chalice with incense or copal (a tree resin used in indigenous ceremonies) is placed on the alter to purify the moulds of the dead and ward off evil spirits.

  • Paper – colourful tissue paper flags cut out in intricate designs are a representation of the union between life and death.

  • Fire – candles and torches are symbols of the love we have for our deceased relatives and guiding lights for their spirits.

It’s no secret that I’d LOVE to do a Dia Los Muertos themed wedding ceremony one day and use the symbolism of the altar to honour LOVE and LIFE!

What would you include in your altar?

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