Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead is actually a 3 day celebration in honor and in memory of the deceased. Despite the association with death and skulls, the tradition is all about remembering deceased relatives and honoring their memory. It is a colorful and bright celebration of their lives.
The modern holiday combines elements of indigenous cultures and traditions with Catholic/Christian practices of Allhallowtide. Dia de Muertos has origins in pre-Colombian traditions, most especially the Aztec festival in honor of the goddess Mictēcacihuātl, the Lady of the Dead, and in memory of deceased ancestors. This festival originally took place in the summer and lasted a month. It gradually shifted to coincide with Christian observance of Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.)
The traditions to honor the dead include setting up an ofrenda. An ofrenda is an altar or offering to the deceased meant to help guide the souls back home to visit with their families. The ofrenda includes a picture of the deceased; flowers, usually Aztec marigolds; food and drink, particularly favorites of the deceased; pan de muerto (bread), sugar skulls; brightly colored paper crafts (papel picado); candles; and sometimes possessions of the deceased.
My husband and I observe the holiday a bit. We made sugar skull cookies and decorated our ofrenda which includes family photos of his grandfather and aunt who we honored, a candle, bright orange flowers, a decorative skull and muerto figurines, 3 bronze horse figurines (which are always on this shelf but we leave because his abuelo was a rancher), and two sugar skull cookies on papel picado.
Traditional ofrendas are usually larger and include more food including pan de muerto, real sugar skulls, which are made of sugar molded into the shape of skulls (I tried making these last year but they crumbled but I will try again in the future), and other foods that their relative enjoyed.
The three day celebration begins on October 31st as families prepare their ofrendas. November 1 is usually considered Día de los Angelitos or Día de los Inocentes and is meant to honor children who have died. November 2 is the day for adults and is simply called Día de Muertos or Día de los Difuntos. In Mexico and in some places in the US The night of November 2nd is when families visit and decorate the graves of their family members.
I highly recommend the movie Coco for more insight into the meaning of Día de Muertos—it’s beautifully made and really gets to the heart of the meaning–remembering those who have passed.