Writer Octavio Paz tells us that death is the Mexican's "most favourite plaything" and "most lasting love". This certainly seems true on the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated on 2 November in Mexico and all Mexican communities. Hallowe'en, celebrated two days previously, is rooted in the Celtic traditions of ancient Europe, but the Day of the Dead belongs to the traditions of the Aztecs, the native people of Mexico.

After their 1519 – 21 conquest of Mexico, the Spaniards mingled Aztec and Catholic spirituality wherever possible, to create new traditions, and therefore a different cultural identity for Mexico as part of the Spanish empire. The Day of the Dead is one of the most colourful examples of this spiritual compromise.

For the Aztecs it was not a Day at all, but a month-long festival to honour dead friends and relatives. It was celebrated from early August, in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar. By changing the date, the Spaniards could connect this festival with the Catholic holiday that seemed most similar. This was the feastday of All Souls, celebrated on November 2, when the living prayed for the souls of the dead to be released from their sufferings in Purgatory, a place of purification they had to pass through to reach Heaven.

The rituals of the Day of the Dead combine those of All Souls and the Aztec festival. Catholics traditionally visit the graves of dead relatives and friends at All Souls, to bring flowers and pray for the souls in Purgatory. On the Day of the Dead, Mexican families will also visit the graves of their loved ones, but the atmosphere is a lot less solemn: families can be found enjoying picnics at the graveside, and cheerful music is often played in the graveyards.

Even the flowers on altars and graves seem more colourful: they are Mexican orange marigolds, known in the Aztec-rooted language, Nahuatl, as cempoalxochitl, or 'flower of twenty petals'. There is no fear, and no undue reverence: skeletal figures and skull masks, called calacas, show death as ironic and funny rather than threatening. In some areas, relatives will spend the night beside a grave. The purpose of it all is to encourage the dead to revisit their families and friends on earth, to hear how they are prayed for and missed. Here, the Aztec traditions begin to show themselves, for it was a key Aztec belief that the dead could easily return to their former lives.

Calaca mask

In case they decide to do so, Mexican homes are well prepared to receive them. Each house sets up an altar dedicated to the dead, on which Catholic religious objects, such as candles, crosses and statues of the Blessed Virgin mingle with more personal ofrendas, modern variations on the Aztec tradition of making offerings to the dead. These include photographs of the dead loved ones, samples of their favourite food and drink, and possessions they treasured, such as jewellery or toys.

An altar to the dead with ofrendas

On this day, laughter is as important as tears. Stories are told, and calaveras, or short humorous poems, written, about the lives of relatives and friends who have died. Sometimes bedding is left out for the returning dead, so that they can rest after their tough journey from the afterlife. Food is always ready: the sweet and rich pan de los muertos, or bread of the dead, decorated with sugared bones; skulls made of sugar, amaranth seeds or chocolate, each one with the name of a family member, living or dead, written across its forehead. Although the living eat the food, they believe the dead have spiritually devoured it first.

Traditional pan de muerto

In Spain, and other parts of Catholic Europe, there was a tradition of begging for treats like the pan de los muertos in return for prayers to release souls from Purgatory; sugar bones were traditionally eaten on All Souls' Day in Naples, Italy. The sugar skulls of the Day of the Dead could have been influenced by the use of the human skull as a memento mori, or commonplace symbol of death, in European culture. However, the calacas of the Day of the Dead are no Spanish import.

Catrina figures

The image of La Catrina, an elegantly-dressed woman with a skull for a face, has become an important feature of the modern Day of the Dead because it links the Catholic tradition's stern warnings against vanity with the acceptance of death that comes from the festival's Aztec roots. La Catrina's cultural predecessor is the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead, who was the patron of the ancient festival. She was the ruler of Mictlan, the Aztec otherworld, and her function was to guard the bones of the dead. Traditionally she was also portrayed as a skeleton, her mouth open to swallow the stars during the day.

The Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl

Passing through the nine levels of Mictlan was as challenging to Aztecs as gaining release from Purgatory was to Catholics. But Aztecs did not see death as the end of life. They believed it was a new kind of life: the soul continued living once it had reached its appropriate region of the afterlife. It was therefore possible for the souls of the dead to revisit the world of the living. This was why, during the ancient festival, the native Mexicans embraced and celebrated death with a spirit that endures to this day.

Sugar skulls

The sugar skulls of the modern Day of the Dead, piled up as ofrendas on the family altars, remind us of the Aztec tradition of displaying real human skulls in a similar way during the festival of the dead, not to cause fear or foreboding but as symbols of the rebirth that they felt sure would follow death. In Aztec tradition, dying in one world meant awakening to the next.

Was Octavio Paz right to believe that his fellow-Mexicans simply loved death? It appears so, when we consider the Day of the Dead and its uncompromising rituals. But this extraordinary festival may offer us another answer: that, through their joyous welcoming of the dead, Mexicans past and present have found one way to cherish and celebrate life.