Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world: In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches.
Some academics are critical of the historical roots of Día de Muertos and say that it is more about profit than respect for the dead. Certainly, in some parts of Mexico City, the holiday has become a full-fledged tourist attraction. Entrance fees to cemeteries have become the norm.
In Mexico City the holiday does not have much to do with the way the Mexica viewed death. González says the urban spectacle has become interesting not so much for its pre-Hispanic roots, but rather because it is now an important part of Mexico's identity, with the promotion of Día de Muertos as a resistance to the incursion of U.S. culture, like Halloween.
A central idea behind the creation of the Ofrenda is to share with the dead the pleasures of life. Pulque, beer or tequila are served as reminders of the good times on earth. A former smoker will be treated with his/her favorite brand of cigarettes and Coca Cola is inevitable. The Ofrenda is an offering or helping force, and a visual expression, without judgment, of the gratitude, love and veneration the family feels for the visiting spirit of their relative.
Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend, according to Mary J. Adrade, who has written three books on the ritual.
In the pre-Hispanic era the Aztecs honored their dead with celebrations tied in with the harvest season. The ancient calendar called for festivities in remembrance of deceased children, called Miccailhuitontli (Little Feast for the Dead), around mid-August, immediately followed by Hueymiccaihuitl (Great Feast for the Dead) and Xocotl Huetzi (Falling of Fruit).
While most altars are laden with the favorite foods, sweets, drinks, and harvest fruits of each family spirit, even the most basic altar includes these basic needs:
WATER to quench the thirst and for purification
SALT to season the food and for purification
BREAD to represent the food needed for survival
The Aztecs used papel picado or paper banners in their religious rituals and this tradition is still carried out today. Curtains of papel de china picado are hung behind the altar in designs cut-out with skeletons, flowers, birds, and coffins. Purple banners represents mourning and hot pink or bright orange banners signify the joyful return of the departed to the land of the living. In many part of Mexico, families spread a floral carpet on the ground leading to their home so that the spirit does not get lost along the way.
Marigolds are a significant symbol for the Day of the Dead festivity, and are known as the "flower of the dead." Their scent is believed to "attract the souls and draw them back."
In most localities November 1 is set aside for remembrance of deceased infants and children, often referred to as angelitos (little angels). Those who have died as adults are honored November 2.
Family photographs are set out on the altar to recall the individuals being honored. A washbasin, towel, soap and mirror are placed nearby so that returning spirits can freshen-up before beginning to feast on their once favorite foods. The altar may be personalized with appurtenances that were essential in the deceased's daily life. A petate (straw mat) denotes both the traditional bed and precursor to the wooden coffin. For a woman there may be a metate and a molcajete for grinding corn masa and other cooking ingredients, a rebozo (shawl), and a basket filled with needlework materials. A gourd for carrying water, a machete, hat, serape, morral (shoulder bag), and pair of huaraches are typically displayed for a man.
In setting up the altar, a designated area of the home is cleared of its normal furnishings. The arrangement often consists of a table and several overturned wooden crates placed in tiers and covered with clean linens. The offerings are then laid out in an artistic and fairly symmetrical fashion. The smell of burning copal (incense) and the light of numerous candles are intended to help the departed find their way.
Other tourists discover that much like Memorial or Remembrance Day back north, families here visit, clean and decorate graves of loved ones for the November 1 and 2 holidays. Many families honor their ancestors and dead with home altars, laden with harvest fruits, traditional bread with crossed bones on dough on top, all to greet the spirits as they return to the home for 24 hours each year.
From mid-October through the first week of November, markets and shops all over Mexico are replete with the special accouterments for the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead). These include all manner of skeletons and other macabre toys; intricate tissue paper cut-outs called papel picado; elaborate wreaths and crosses decorated with paper or silk flowers; candles and votive lights; and fresh seasonal flowers, particularly cempazuchiles (marigolds) and barro de obispo (cockscomb).
November 1, All Saints Day, and November 2, All Souls Day are marked throughout Mexico by intriguing customs that vary widely according to the ethnic roots of each region. Common to all, however, are colorful adornments and lively reunions at family burial plots, the preparation of special foods, offerings laid out for the departed on commemorative altars and religious rites that are likely to include noisy fireworks.
Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual. But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die. To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.
In Mexico, the symbol of death is a grinning, fleshless beauty called La Muerte—Lady Death. An elegantly and colorfully clad skeleton wearing a flower-laden hat, created by artist José Guadalupe Posada (1853-1913), she's an amazing metaphor of life embracing death. You can feel this in her name, for she goes by La Catrina—Fancy Lady, La Flaca—Skinny, La Huesuda—Bony and La Pelona—Baldy. There's humor here, not fear.