This day comes from an ancient Aztec ritual that honors the memories of the dead with food, candles, and special ceremonies.
It is a joyous time, when loved ones who have died are remembered with food, stories and altars made at home which include photographs of the deceased, food he or she liked, drinks, flowers (usually marigolds) and candles. Stories, remembrances, and happy times are told and retold. A visit to the cemetery, if possible, is included and the items from the altar are taken there. The belief is that the spirit of the diseased returns once a year on November 2nd.
This is how one of my students explained it to me. "Mrs. R., it's boring being dead, and once a year we go to the cemetery and make a little party for my grandfather with food he liked, cigarettes, his favorite beer and photographs of the new grandchildren, flowers, too."
So every year, on November 2nd, my students who wanted to share this celebration showed other students a sample of their altars.
Folk Art from Mexico celebrating the Day of the Dead is festive and ironic as skeletons are portrayed in little dioramas doing everyday things--getting married, dancing, family groups, but all are skeletons. Then there is the special food, sugar skulls, pan muertos--this is a sweet bread where the dough is molded into rounds decorated with shaped dough bones across the top and much more.
My favorite El Dia folk art is this wonderful skeleton made of paper mache. which my sister bought for me when she was in Mexico, knowing how much I like folk art. I call him Albert and around Halloween, which is now, I take out and display my Halloween decoration and the ones I have collected commemorating El Dia de los Muertos. If you are ever in Santa Fe, there is a folk art museum there that has many, many examples. And if you go to Mexico, see if you can find others to buy.
Much more information on You Tube and Google.