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Mexican Culture

Day of the Dead Altars Explained

By October 2, 2019February 25th, 2021No Comments

Day of the Dead altars known as altares de muertos or ofrendas are set during the Day of the Dead celebrations on November 2nd to honor the deceased. These celebrations are based in the belief that the souls of the ones gone can come back to this world on this day. The altars are the most prominent feature in the celebration because they show the souls the way to their home. The altar makes the souls feel welcomed and show them they have not been forgotten.

Day of the Dead Altar Elements

Altars throughout Mexico are set with different elements depending on the region, these differences are determined by the availability of seasonal flowers, fruits and the traditional food from the area. Other elements are shared across the country. Most altars would include some or all of these elements.

A picture of the deceased loved one is placed in the altar to make him present and revive his image.

The altar is decorated with fresh flowers as it is believed that their scent will make the returning souls feel welcomed and happy. Marigolds are often used but depends on regional traditions, local availability and financial capacity.

Different Levels
In some areas altars are made with two levels that symbolize heaven and earth, in others they are made with three levels for heaven, purgatory and earth, and there are places where altars with seven levels are placed, each of these levels represents the steps a soul has to take to get to heaven.

An Arch
Symbolizes the entrance to the world of the dead.

Chiseled Paper
Papel picado are paper flags chiseled with saints figures or skulls and skeletons that are placed like a table cloth on the altar.

Day of the Dead Bread
Pan de Muertos is different in every region of the country and it is one of the most important elements in the altar as it is a fraternal offering to the souls.

Every region in Mexico has a special dish that is considered the most festive and it is usually the main food offered in the altar. Tamales, atole, fruits and desserts like calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin) are also commonly included.

Spirited Drinks
Tequila, mezcal and pulque (fermented agave juice) are offered to the adult souls so they can relax and enjoy the time with their family. If the honored one smoked a pack of cigarettes is also set in the altar.

Candles show the souls their way to the altar and back to the dead world, they symbolize the light, hope and faith.

Religious Elements
The most common are crucifixes and Virgin Mary and patron saint images.

A glass of water is set in the altar to calm the soul’s thirst after their long journey.

A small plate with salt is set in the altar as a purifier element.

Personal Objects
In some areas personal tools, clothing or toys are added to make them feel at home.

Candle holders, incense burners, paper mache or clay figurines such as skulls and skeletons are often included.

The souls will only take the essence out of the food and drinks so at the end of the celebration or in some places during the event, the family with gather and eat and drink the offered goodies and often share them with their community members.

*this post was adapted from ‘Mexican Folk Art Guide’

Browse our Day of the Dead Decor.



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