The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to a precolumbian past. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors had been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500–3,000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the "Lady of the Dead", corresponding to the modern and iconic Catrina.
In most regions of Mexico, November 1 is to honor children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") but also as Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels") and November 2 as Día de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead").People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them.
La Calavera Catrina (‘Dapper Skeleton’, ‘Elegant Skull’) is a 1910 -1913 zinc etching by famous Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada. The image depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her chapeau originally is related to French and European styles of the early 20th century. She is meant to portray a satirization of those Mexican natives who Posada felt were over embracing European traditions of the aristocracy in the pre-revolutionary era. She in particular, has become an icon of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
The white is a symbol of purity, innocence, and heaven. The color is mainly used during the first day of the celebration, because it is dedicated to the children and youth that have died.
Black is used more often in the papel picado. With the geometric designs, it makes reference to the pre-Hispanic religion, to Tlilan, the place of blackness, and Mictlán, the place of the dead.
This color is used to address grief. Although the holiday is a celebration of the dead, there is a grieving process that everyone passes. This color is mainly used in papel picado.
Another traditional color that represents life, orange is the typical color the marigold are bought in. It is also the Aztec color for grieving.
The yellow is a symbol of sun life and the earth. It is also one of the traditional colors that marigold flowers are bought in when leaving a trail for the spirits, decorating their tombs, and the offerings.
This color is used to symbolize happiness. This color is generally used as the sugar coating on the bread of the dead and for the papel picado used on the offerings.
This color is another reference to life, representing the Resurrection and blood of Christ. It is also a popular color used for the mantel that is placed to decorate the offerings prepared for the visiting souls.
Generally Marigold flowers are used to remember the souls of the dead, since it is the traditional flower of the dead. It's colors are said to represent the force of the sun and life. In spanish marigold is called Cempasuchil, which comes from Náhuatl and when translated it means "flower of 20 or more petals", "20 leaves" or "20 flowers". It also symbolizes sadness and tragedy.
These red flowers specifically refer to the blood of Christ and the Resurrection, human and animal life. Directly translated the flowers' names are "Lion Paws" and "Turkey's Booger". Because of their aromas and colors, they are a symbol of celebration. They decorate and aromatize the location during the holiday, in which it is believed that the soul will leave content because of the aromatics and vivid colors.
This is known as Baby's breath in English. Although not used in all the places that celebrate the Day of the Dead, this flower is used mainly for the souls of the children. Their white color is representative of purity and innocence.
These decorative papers are hung or placed around the offering as a form of signaling and guide for the spirits.
Using the flowers shown in the last section, mainly marigolds and the paws of the lion, to decorate the offering. To offer the idea of life and hope, being that the colors represent life, the sun, the earth, and energy. These also serve as a guide for the spirits of the dead to the house of the living relatives and their corresponding offering from the cemetery.
Candles are placed and lit for the duration of the two days. This is one way to help guide the spirits to and from the spirit world. Some candles even have elaborate illustrations of death, as a offering and gift to assure the safe travel of spirits between the two worlds.
A bowl of water or wet towel is placed so that the spirits may wash their hands and enjoy they offerings cleansed. Some even say that it is another way the spirits are cleansed of impurities.
Depending on the country and location, crosses are made of the traditional holiday flowers, of ashes. This is done to purify the spirit of the dead.
This deocration is made purely of sugar and decorated with elaborate designs. They have the name of the dead written on the forehead (sometimes as a joke names of living people are placed on the skulls as well) these are consumed after the two days by the friends and relatives.
The idea of placing food and drinks is to provide a meal for the dead. So the favorite drink and dish of the close relative is placed in the offering. And it is said the spirit consumes the essence of the food and drink offerings during the two days of celebration, which is why when consumed by the living relatives, the things have no flavor. Relatives consume the physical offerings after the two day celebration as a form of protecting themselves from malicious spirits.
A special dish for the Day of the Dead. It is a sweet bread that is baked in a traditional cement or brick oven in different shapes, from simple round shapes to complex skull and bone figures. They are sprinkled with sugar when freshly pulled out of the oven. Platillo especial del Día de Muertos. Es un panecillo dulce que se hornea en diferentes figuras, desde simples formas redondas hasta cráneos, adornado con figuras del mismo pan en forma de hueso y se espolvorea con azúcar.