The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) holiday in Mexico is truly a celebration of life filled with flowers, food, and ceremony. Guests from all over the world join us at the Rancho to take part in the colorful and joyful customs that make October 31 through November 2 such a special time of year.
One of the many tradition we share with our guests is the decorating of our Day of the Dead altar, which is built to honor the lives of those who have passed. These altars are beautiful creations, constructed with love and care…one of the most important traditions during Day of the Dead in Mexico and in Mexican-American communities around the globe.
Traditionally, every family in Mexico builds an altar on the days leading up to November 1. Some people even start weeks in advance and hire professionals to build elaborate altars. Other altars are more modest, but are still built with sincere, loving intentions.
On top of the altar, offerings are laid out for the dead — known as ofrenda in Spanish. These are items that the spirits will enjoy when they come back to earth to visit their living families and friends. People make an effort to lay out the best ofrenda they can afford, consisting of things the dead person enjoyed while s/he was alive.
It is common for families to spend a lot of money for the Day of the Dead, to buy new things to go on their altars. This is because they want the best for their deceased loved ones. They don’t want their loved ones to show up after a long, tedious journey from the Other Side to be greeted by a meager, half-hearted altar!
A Day of the Dead altar is usually arranged on a table top that is used exclusively for the altar, or it is built from stacks of crates. Altars have at least two tiers, sometimes more. The table or crates are draped with cloth (or sometimes a paper or plastic covering). An arch made of marigolds is often erected over top of the altar.
Whether simple or sophisticated, Day of the Dead altars and ofrenda all contain certain basic elements in common. Here are the ofrendas that you will typically see on a Dia de los Muertos altar:
- Candles – Candles are lit to welcome the spirits back to their altars.
- Marigolds – These yellow-orange flowers, also called cempasúchitl, symbolize death. Their strong fragrance also help lead the dead back to their altars. Marigold petals may also be sprinkled on the floor in front of the altar, or even sprinkled along a path from the altar to the front door, so that the spirit may find her way inside.
- Papel picado – These decorative pieces of cut paper are draped around the altar’s edge or hung from above.
- Incense – Most commonly, copal incense, which is the dried aromatic resin from a tree native to Mexico. The scent is also said to guide the spirits back to their altars.
- Salt – Salt represents the continuance of life.
- Photo of the deceased – A framed photo of the dead person to whom the altar is dedicated, usually positioned in a prime spot on the altar.
- Items that once belonged to the deceased – Mementos and other things the dead person enjoyed in life are laid out on the altar, and often new things are bought too.
- Images of saints – or other role models who were important in the dead person’s life.
- Toiletries – The spirit will want to freshen up after they reach the altar, so a hairbrush, a mirror and some soap are always appreciated, along with a small towel.
- Water – Souls are thirsty after their long journey from the Other Side, so they appreciate a glass of water upon arrival.
- Other drinks – The favorite drink of the deceased is also laid out on the altar, whether it is tequila, whisky, soda, or anything else!
- Pan de muerto – Also known as “bread of the dead”, pan de muerto is a symbol of the departed.
- Sugar skulls – As symbols of death and the afterlife, sugar skulls are not only given as gifts to the living during Day of the Dead, they are also placed as offerings on the altar.
- Fresh fruit – whatever is in season — oranges, bananas, etc.
- Other foods – Traditional Day of the Dead foods that you would find on altars include atole, mole, tamales, and tortillas. Altars also usually include the dead person’s favorite foods, including modern foods like Rice Krispies or potato chips!
The souls that visit the altars do not actually eat or drink what is on the altar. They can’t — they have no bodies! Instead, they absorb the aroma and energy of the food, which nourishes their spirits.
After the holiday is over, the foods and drinks on the altars are distributed amongst family and friends, but the foods and drinks are now tasteless and devoid of nutritional value, because their essence is gone.
Although Day of the Dead altars typically contain these same basic elements, altars can be highly individualized and creative. For instance, some altars may be draped with a string of Christmas lights while others may be constructed out of stacked, hollowed-out cereal boxes. Why not? Each altar is as unique as the person it was built to honor. The very nature of the holiday encourages this sense of creativity when it comes to honoring the dead.
In the past, altars were only built inside people’s homes as a personal connection to their loved ones on the Other Side. These days, you can also find Day of the Dead altars in schools, government buildings, businesses, museums and libraries. When they are built in public places like this, their usual purpose is to celebrate Mexico’s cultural heritage or to honor a well-known hero or figure.