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By The Way
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Ancient Day of the Dead traditions live on with Aztec descendants

In Indigenous communities in Mexico, celebrations for deceased loved ones have been around for centuries

During Day of the Dead celebrations from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, families from San Miguel Canoa and its surrounding areas visit the cemetery, place flowers, make offerings and say prayers or orations for their departed. (Photos by Matt Reichel for The Washington Post)
4 min

SAN MIGUEL CANOA, MEXICO — Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of Mexico’s most recognized holidays. The celebration from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 commemorates death as an essential element of life and honors loved ones who have passed. It’s believed the dead have permission to cross the underworld, or Mictlan, and share in a feast with their living family and friends.

The celebration’s historical roots extend back thousands of years to ancient Aztec Indigenous traditions and are still observed by descendants, the Nahua people. The holiday itself is highly syncretic, combining a Mesoamerican worldview of the progression of life and family with Catholic traditions; All Saints’ Day is Nov. 1 while All Souls’ Day is Nov. 2.

In recent years, the holiday has been popularized in films such as Disney’s “Coco” and James Bond. The Mexican tourism board commercialized the celebration in places like Mexico City and Michoacán with extravagant parades with millions of locals and tourists in attendance.

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The communities surrounding Puebla and Tlaxcala’s cities along the Malinche volcano’s base have large Nahua Indigenous communities. Día de los Muertos and its ancient traditions are found within the Indigenous towns outside central Mexico’s larger cities.

One such example is San Miguel Canoa, a Nahua town located a 40-minute drive from bustling Puebla. The area’s population is about 45,000 and sits between three dramatic stratovolcanoes — Malinche, Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl underneath a thick cloudscape. Here, elders prefer to speak in their own language — Náhuatl.

Communities across Mexico celebrate the holiday, but customs differ across regions. According to families in San Miguel Canoa, little has changed about their ancestral traditions for the holiday. For many, practices change in representation, but every action served is for their original cause — to welcome and celebrate the departed.

On Oct. 30 and 31, families go to markets to buy fruit, bread, incense, pine needles, marigold flowers, or cempasúchil, and other ingredients to make their loved one’s favorite dishes, like mole poblano and tamales. Catherine Torres Perez prepares large orders of pan de muerto, which families will place on altars, or ofrendas, as an offering to their loved ones.

Pan de Muerto is a traditional Mexican sweet bread. To some, the crisscross shapes represent the bones of the dead; for others, it resembles tears shed for the departed. To the people of San Miguel Canoa, bread is the most basic nourishment and is included in every offering. No matter how rich or poor a family is, they put out bread on their altar.

Eduardo and Nancy Sanchez lost their 6-month-old son, Eduardo Jr., eight months ago. This year’s celebrations are raw and painful. When they set up the altar, the parents told him, “Son, these are your toys — this is your home. We also put the things you liked to eat and drink when you were still with us.” This year’s Día de Muertos is their opportunity to reconcile with the grief they have experienced since he departed.

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The celebration of the dead is divided into two days of worship. Nov. 1 corresponds to the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day and is dedicated to children in Day of the Dead celebrations, while Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day, is devoted to the “faithful departed” — adults like parents, grandparents and other ancestors.

From Oct. 31 onward, families in San Miguel Canoa place flowers and offerings at the cemetery for three days, staying up to two to three hours. People start visiting from 4 a.m. until noon. During this time, there are three Masses — one for each cemetery in the area. Families often have members in each burial ground and attend all three Masses. Then, around noon, everyone eats together with their families.

Pantéon Los Remedios is San Miguel Canoa’s main and oldest cemetery, spanning more than 650 feet. On Nov. 2, the final day of celebrations, each family lights little candles around their relatives’ graves, illuminating the entire cemetery.

Leticia and Cecilia Sanchez-Monarcha build their traditional ofrendas. Families here use what they have: marigolds from their fields, pine needles from around the forests of the Malinche region, incense, bread and mole made with recipes from their ancestors.

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They are part of three families who divide one large altar into three sections. They start cooking their mole poblano using a village recipe at 4:30 a.m., and it takes two hours to build their final offering. They sprinkle marigold petals on their walkways to attract the spirits to their offerings. They believe that when they put the offerings up, by the time the celebration is over at noon on Nov. 2, the departed will have “consumed” everything they have made in a spiritual sense, and the richness and smell of the food, flowers and incense will be gone.