Building & Making /
Creating a Day of the
(a Dia de los
above - a day of the dead altar made
by Susan for her dead relatives.
Today, in the United
States, the fastest growing holiday (that isn't an official holiday) is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the
Dead) – a holiday from South of the border that while it immediately
follows our Halloween, is actually a time of celebrating the dead.
Deceases friends, relatives, folk heroes and even pets are honored from
October 31 – November 2nd of each year. Altars are
usually set up between the middle of October through November 2nd.
For a better description
of dias de los Muertos, visit our article on the
Days of the Dead.
Typically families clean
gravesites and many villages and pueblos have all night candle-lit vigils
at the cemetery, however the most visible aspect is the public and home
altars. The word ofrenda means offering in Spanish. They are also
called altares or altars, but they are not for worshiping. Some people
mistakenly think that Mexicans that set up altars for their defunct
relatives are actually worshiping them. Nothing further from the truth.
The vast majority of Mexicans are Christian Catholics, so they only
Most often altars are
constructed for immediate ancestors or relatives, but can be for anyone –
even folk heroes like Frida Kahlo or Mother Theresa. Anyone who has had a
positive impact on your life can be the subject of your Day of the Dead
altar. Altars are also used to show your support for others. Dia de los
Muertos altars made to those who have died due to breast cancer, AIDS related illnesses, to those lost in the World Trade Towers attack and the students at
Columbine are just a few examples.
Building altars mixes
ancient meso-American religions (mostly Aztec but blended from a wide
range of Central American Indian beliefs) with modern Christianity. There is no
witchcraft involved – those creating altars are not trying to raise the
dead – they are already with us!
A Dia de los Muertos altar
can be as simple or as elaborate as you like and have the time and
resources to construct. The purpose of an altar is remembrance - with that
in mind feel free to do what you think your honoree would enjoy. While we
have included a few guidelines, these are by no means rules to live by.
They are a starting place, where you end up is completely up to you.
While death is a topic
largely avoided in the USA, the remembrance of deceased ancestors and
loved ones is traditional among diverse cultures around the globe, often
marked by lighting candles or lamps and laying out offerings of food and
drink. Such celebrations can be traced back as far as the glory days of
ancient Egypt when departed souls were honored during the great festival
Are those who create
altars trying to communicate with the dead? Yes, and no. There are two
aspects to altar making on el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).
The first is to communicate with those that are no longer physically with
us- this isn’t any different from people going to visit the graves of
their dearly departed. It isn’t about witchcraft, it is about having an
eternal dialogue with those that we love. The second aspect is the
connection it provides us to the world at large and to our place in the
after-life. By building an altar we are acknowledging that we go on and
that not being physically present isn’t the same as being gone.
Some people take up entire
corners of their homes with Day of the Dead altars, others use a simple
end table dressed up with fabric and other items. The point is, size
doesn’t really matter, what matters is the heart you put into it.
Traditionally any items
(including the plates or dishes used) placed on the altar should be new.
Many of the other items (the food, garlands, flowers, incense and candles)
are meant to be ephemeral (lasting a very short time; short-lived;
transitory – not permanent). Thus, traditionally new items such as
flowers, foods, papel picado (paper banners) are purchased new each year
rather than being saved year to year. Not everything has to be new –
favorite toys for children, a favorite deck of cards, comb or book of a
loved one can be used on the altar, as well, and kept. Many people in
the U.S. keep items from year to year, however in Mexico, as stated above,
these items are bought new each year - they are meant to be impermanent
and it is believed that to use old or used pieces dishonors the dead.
BUILDING YOUR DAY OF THE DEAD ALTAR
- Set a table against a
wall (you can also build your altar on the floor).
boxes, books or crates on the table to create different levels and cover
with clean linens or colored cloth of your choice (the levels represent
the stages spirits go though to reach Paradise). You can decide how many
levels, however many traditional altars are created with four levels each
of which is stepped, just like a pyramid with the top level being the
smallest and the bottom level being the largest.
- Add a
bar of soap, a dish of water and hand towel (it’s a long, dusty journey
and being dead can be messy – plus the dead like to freshen up before
enjoying a meal).
- Have some pillows and
extra blankets around the house - so that your spirits can rest after
their long journey.
Paper or plastic banners called
Papel picado which are crafted from thin
tissue paper. Zanzibar offers dozens of designs: from those
that are themed for dia de los Muertos, to happy designs with flowers
and birds, birthday and marriage themed banners, Frida Kahlo, Virgin de
Guadalupe, and many others! Visit our Papel Picado
pages for more information!
flowers, flower petals and flower garlands (traditionally yellow and
orange marigolds called Cémpasuchil). These flowers can be fresh
cut, planted or paper cutout flowers or even silk flowers.
Traditionally, fragrant cut flowers are used. In many homes in
southern Mexico, the flower petals will actually be dropped on the path
from the avenue into the home... allowing the spirits to follow the
path. Traditional flowers such as marigolds often have a strong,
pungent smell - something that the departed are attracted to.
- Add a
glass of water to the altar, as well as candles (called Velas -
please note that all burning
candles should be monitored – blow them out when you go to bed
- typically at least one candle is added for each expected spirit - but
the more the merrier!), and incense. Traditionally copal (natural
tree resin incense) was and is used traditionally but any fragrance of
you like (or who the altar is being built for) will do. (These items
represent the elements: earth, water, fire, and air.) The burning
incense and light from the candles will help attract the spirits to your
photos of the person(s) or pet the altar is commemorated to. Many also
place pictures of saints and religious icons and figures as well as
crosses. Many altars also have a picture of Christ or the Virgin
Mary (Virgin de Guadlupe).
- Add any
items that the honored dead were fond of – favorite toys for children,
perhaps a favorite watch, book or jewelry of an adult. You can also give
small gifts to your loved ones. Coloring books for children, a necktie
for uncle Harold.
any food or drinks that the deceased enjoyed while they were alive. (This
is to welcome the spirits to the party.) This could be non alcoholic
sodas for the children and wine or hard liquor for adults! Food for the
little ones shouldn’t be too spicy – and make sure you put lots of candy
and sweets on your altar. Traditionally corn (maize), salt (sal, the
spice of life), corn (Maíz), sugar (Azúcar), sugar cane, bananas (Plátanos),
Oranges (Naranjas), Apples, (Manzanas), Bread of the dead (Pan de Muerto),
Tamales, Mole sauce, Rice, Beans (Frijoles) and other traditional Mexican
dishes and favorite dishes of the deceased are added. For traditional
recipes, visit our
Mexican Recipes pages
Decorated sugar skulls (Calaveras de Azucar – often decorated with
colorful frosting, mylar and often with the deceased person’s name written
with frosting). While sugar skulls ARE edible, most people don't eat
them - they take a lot of handling! In Mexico, the children await the
sugar skulls all year long - but truly it is one of the only treats they
get all year - if you want something sweet buy a snickers bar - they
taste a lot better! :) Gummy skull and skeleton
candies, chocolate molded skulls, catrinas and skeletons are also placed on the altars.
Zanzibar sells molds for making your own sugar skulls. You can purchase
them in our gallery or online at
www.Zanzibar-trading.com and you can read the step-by-step
instructions by visiting our
making Mexican sugar Skulls for Day of the Dead
pages. We also sell the molds for making the chocolates, too!
Learn about making the
chocolate sugar skull molds here.
are meant to be fun, joyful representations of the duality of life and
death, thus many have whimsical skulls and skeleton figures placed
prominently. These Calaveras often are shown doing traditional jobs that
perhaps the departed did while they were alive (small skeletons are
available from almost every profession - from construction workers,
doctors, businessmen to pole dancers!) Often meant to be entertaining,
these small figures add a little fun and joy to the altar. Toy coffins (Juguetee
Ataúdes) and retablos are also prominently displayed. Zanzibar
always has a very large selection of figures in stock - visit our
gallery for the best selection!
Celebrate life and the joy of the persons you are remembering!
...and on the afternoon or evening of November 2nd, you and your family
and friends can enjoy the altar food and candies!