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Mexican Culture

Day of the Dead Altars Explained

By October 2, 2019March 14th, 2022No Comments

Day of the Dead altars known as altares de muertos or ofrendas are set during the Day of the Dead celebrations in November to honor the deceased. These annual celebrations are based on the belief that the souls of the ones gone can come back to this world on this day. It is believed that the spirits of the departed return to visit the living families in their homes and cemeteries. The ancient Aztec civilizations honored their dead with fiestas and rituals during the harvest season. Their culture believed that death was the beginning of the cycle of life and the seasons.

Dia de Muertos celebrations take place on November 1st and 2nd every year in Mexico. It is a joyful time for families, music is played, and decorations and colors fill the streets. The altars are the most prominent feature in the celebration because they show the souls the way back home. The altar makes the souls feel welcomed and show them they have not been forgotten. A great deal of effort is put into the altars by Mexican families with colorful decor and traditional food and sweets are prepared.

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 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 on 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 depend 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 is paper flags chiseled with saints figures of 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 light, hope, and faith.

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

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

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

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

Candleholders, 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 drink so at the end of the celebration or in some places during the event, the family will 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’

-Jessica Gomez



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