The Day of the Dead is upon us! As this holiday grows in international fame, due to the beauty of the rituals and ideas that make it, there can be some confusion for first-timers on how exactly to make your altar and what the significance of each piece is. Searching google on the topic will leave your head spinning, with some websites laying out very specific steps and offerings for seven days surrounding the holiday and others having a more lassiez-faire approach, stating that it doesn’t matter what you put, it is all about your personal intentions and experiences. Still others have traditions based on region.
It can all be confusing, but I did find several things that almost all of the guides have in common which I will lay out for you here and we can consider “essential offerings” for your Dia de los Muertos altar. Let’s take a look at what they are what the meaning behind them…
- A glass of water – A glass of water is found on every altar how-to page I came across. The glass of water is laid out for those loved ones whose souls have made the long trek back and are thirsty from their journey. Some put out the glass of water as early as October 28th to quench the lone souls that arrive early with no family to remember them.
- Flowers – Every day of the Dead altar has flowers. Looking around online the most common flower is the orange marigold or Cempasuchitl as the Aztecs called it. It is commonly known as the Day of the Dead Flower or Flor de Muertos. But some say that other flowers of different colors such as white and purple all have difference significance. The overarching theme however is that the aroma of the flowers helps lure the spirit back to its family and looks nice to help make them welcome. On the 2nd of November petals are placed from the doorway to the altar as a path for the spirits.
- Pan de los Muertos – Day of the dead bread is a sweet treat for the souls that have returned to celebrate with their family. It is a light fluffy round loaf of bread with a light citrus glaze and a healthy dusting of sugar crystals. The bread ribbons laid over the top represent bones. In Mexico it can be found in any panaderia, or bakery, but may be harder to find elsewhere. White bread can be a substitute for those who can’t find it.
- Candles – Candles are another must-have for your ofrenda. Some people have innumerable candles set out and some say that simple altars can have just 2. One specific guide had a new white candle set out for each day from the 28th of October to November 3rd. The candles help light the way for your loved one’s souls and represent purity.
- Copal Incense – Copal incense comes from a tree resin in southern Mexico and has a strong and clean aroma. Copal is used to ward off bad energy and to cleanse and purify the area for the souls. Copal may be hard to find outside of Mexico so you may need to plan in advance in ordering it or use some other purifying incense.
- Photos – Of course we need photos of the honored dead that we wish to remember. This helps make them present. You can also lay out their personal effects such as pipes, hats, watches, etc…
- Favorite foods and drinks of the deceased – This needs no explanation as the whole purpose of this celebration is to remember our departed loved ones. On November 1st, which is the day that the angleitos, or little angels, return, participants put out sweet treats and candies for children that have been lost. On November 2nd the adults return and families put out cooked foods, drinks, and spirits for the departed. The deceased feed on the essence of the food and the living actually eat it.
- Papel Picado – This is colorful cut-out tissue paper that is used to adorn the altar and make it festive. Some people believe that different colors represent different things but the important thing is just to have some.
- Crosses or religious elements
And that basically does it for the “essential offerings” for a Dia de los Muertos altar. There are a few other more common elements such as salt, candy skulls, skeleton dolls, arches and others but the above list represents the absolute must-haves. Cultures constantly exchange ideas and have since the beginning of time despite what all these “cultural appropriation” silly folks are screaming about. If it appeals to you take the opportunity to participate in a beautiful tradition that honors your departed relatives and invites them to be a part of the family again. Kids learn and adults remember. It is one of my new favorite holidays. Feliz Dia de los Muertos everyone!