El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Day) is mainly identified as a Mexican tradition due to its Aztec beginnings, merging with Catholics’ observance of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2), but it’s normal to see a Dia de los Muertos altar or two throughout the Latino culture. But why is something so morbid as dealing with muertos (the dead) something to be celebrated? Simple, this two-day celebration allows families to welcome back their departed loved ones, not in sorrow, but in a celebration of their life.
While growing up I remember seeing droves and droves of people lined up to visit the graves of their loved ones, my family and I never really participated in the tradition. Yes, we stopped to take flowers to the grave of my only deceased Aunt at the time, but we didn’t stay to enjoy the mariachis being brought to the gravesites, nor did we leave any other ofrendas (offerings). It wasn’t until years later, when my friend went to a Dia de los Muertos Altar class at Casa Ramirez in Houston, that I truly tuned into what the celebration was about and how altars played a role. Here’s what I learned about constructing a Dia de los Muertos Altar.
Step One: Designate a spot for it.
The Altar can be as big or as little as you want it to be, so don’t let that stress you out. Remember, this is about joyfully remembering and honoring those who are no longer with us. The only thing I would recommend is that you have enough space to allow for a couple of levels/tiers for the items you find to commemorate your loved one(s). The levels/tiers can be created by simply using the wall to hang items, or by adding empty boxes/crates covered with a personalized blanket or fabric that in some way, form, or fashion commemorates your loved one(s).
Step Two: Decorate with personal items that honor & remind you of your loved one(s).
Again, be as creative as you want. The point is to include photographs, trinkets, and/or anything else you think would give those seeing the altar, a better understanding of who you’re dearly departed was and how they lived their life. So feel free to include things they valued, owned, or that you find meaningful in showcasing your relationship with them.
Step Three: Don’t forget to add some of the Day of the Dead symbols
If you happen to have some sugar skulls – the icons of Day of the Dead – or want to make some, you can use them as well. Why is something sweet associated with such a somber thing as death? Because it is said to balance the bitterness of death. So you may choose to offer them as gifts to those who stop in to view your altar, or leave them as offerings to the dead. They’re also easy to personalize by choosing colors that represent your loved one(s) and/or by placing their name(s) on the foreheads.
If flowers were more their thing, then consider using marigolds to decorate their alter. They not only add color, but they’re known as the flower of the dead, and are generally placed in vases and/or their petals are sprinkled around the altar. If however, your loved one(s) had a particular flower they loved, feel free to use it instead.
Also consider using candles. They’re not only a welcoming touch when viewing the altar at night, but they are said to welcome the spirits back to the land of the living. Incense is also said to do the same, so why not use both in conjunction with each other?
To add even more color to your altar, consider using papel picado (perforated paper – click here for a quick guide on how to make it). It’s a Mexican art form that is made by hand-cutting tissue paper, in much the same fashion you learned to make snowflakes when you were in elementary.
Last but not least, leave the spirit(s) some yummy ofrendas (offerings). It’s a long, hard road from the afterlife, that’s why you’ll generally find a glass of water, the deceased’s favorite drink (alcoholic and/or non-alcoholic), toiletries, food, and salt. Food & drink – totally, but toiletries? Like I said, it’s a long road, so greeting your loved one(s) with their favorite perfume/cologne, lip gloss, hair brush, etc. totally adds to the welcoming feeling.
As for food, traditionally that includes Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead Bread), but if you don’t have that available or don’t want to make it, you sure can leave any of the deceased’s favorite foods, along with some salt. Salt is said to represent the continuance of life. Remember this is a celebration, so why not include the full circle of life. With that said, you can see how creating an altar has limitless possibilities, so let your imagination roam, and enjoy building one of your own to commemorate your loved one(s).
Have you ever built a Dia de los Muertos altar? What items did you include?