While we are getting ready to start celebrating Halloween, Mexico is preparing for one of their biggest celebrations of the year. The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a multi-day celebration where the living pay homage to their ancestors. In some sections of Mexico, October 31st is a day of preparation for the two days of celebration and remembrance. While predominantly celebrated in the south and central areas of the country, it has slowly moved to the north to become a national holiday.
The holiday dates back to Aztec and Mayan celebrations of the dead. They believed that life and death were just part of one great cycle and that the person they lost would eventually return. The dead in their culture wanted to be celebrated, not mourned, and so celebrate they did! The original holiday was a month long celebration towards the end of summer, usually ending during the corn harvests. That is until the Spaniards came in the 16th century.
When the Spaniards came, they brought their culture and religion with them for the natives that lived there. As hard as they tried, they could not force the indigenous people to accept Christianity and reject their own customs. What evolved over the time of the Spanish occupation became a compromise. The cultures were blended, and Día de los Muertos is the result of this blend. The Aztecs acquiesced to moving their celebration of the dead to when the Spaniards did: All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). It was a shorter celebration, but all parties involved seemed pleased by the arrangement.
Families will spend the entire year gathering the materials to make altars and offerings for the two-day celebration. The days are spent cleaning the graves of friends and family members, offering them prayers and leaving them gifts. An altar may be built at home as well, with stories told about the deceased and overnight vigils held. There are many stories in Mexico about spirits that came back to seek vengeance after being slighted on the Day of the Dead. Ignore them at your own risk!
The tradition is alive and well in many countries, including the United States. El Jimador has created an amazingly detailed infographic that goes much more in depth about all of the various practices and symbols of the holiday, as well as some drinks to have during the celebration. They have even more information on their website for you to peruse!