Even families with very limited budgets spare no expense when preparing the
altar to honor their family. They want their spirits to enjoy the offerings and
to return each year to continue this special spiritual companionship.
The altar is prepared in a place of honor in the home, using empty boxes on a
table to form a pyramid of three or more levels, then a white tablecloth covers
Four candles are placed on the top level to represent the cardinal
directions. A candle is lit for each dead family member, and one extra so that
no one is left out. The candles, which represent hope and faith, burn during the
night, so that there is no darkness.
Copal is the resinous sap of a Mexican tree, burned as incense since the time
of the Aztecs as an offering to the gods. On the Day of the Dead altar, the
scent attracts spirits, drawing them home. It is also used to cleanse the area,
and to ward off evil.
While most altars are laden with the favorite foods, sweets, drinks, and harvest
fruits of each family spirit, even the most basic altar includes these basic
WATER to quench the thirst and for purification
SALT to season the food and for purification
BREAD to represent the food needed for survival
A washbasin, soap, towel, mirror and comb are placed nearby so the spirits
can clean up when they return.
traditional altar offerings include:
of the dead
(cut paper skeletons)
of water a must!
of the deceased
four principle seeds used by the Aztecs were:
four elements of life:
(the conch shell)
wind (flute and conch shell)
four stages of life are also represented in the four stages of
the corn used in different foods
The hand crafted skeletons, Calaveras are funny and friendly rather
than frightening or spooky. They represent the beloved dead ones, their
occupations and hobbies. As they are placed on the altar, the delightful
skeleton figures bring back fond memories and cause the grieving ones to smile.
The figures with the smells of favorite foods, help the spirits find the right
Three calaveras, which represent the trinity, are placed on the second
Colorful tissue paper, papel picado, is cut into intricate designs and
strung to flutter over around the altar. This custom comes from the Aztecs who
used paper banners in rituals. The colors used represent:
Black for the Prehispanic religions and land of the dead
Purple from the Catholic calendar to signify pain, suffering, grief,
Pink for celebration
White for purity and hope
Yellow and Orange for the marigold, the sun, light
Red representing for Christians, the blood of Jesus; and for the
indigenous, the life blood of humans and animals
Flowers, symbolizing the brevity of life, are massed and fashioned into
garlands, wreaths and crosses to decorate the altar and the grave. The marigold
is the most traditional flower of the season. In Aztec times it was called the cempasuchil,
the flower of 400 lives.
The fragrance of the cempasuchil leads the spirits home. Sometimes
paths of the petals lead out of the cemetery and to the house to guide the
spirits. A cross of marigold petals is formed on the floor so that as the spirit
approaches the alter, he will step on the cross and expel his guilt.
Personal items of the spirits remembered, the child's toys, household saints,
photos of those honored are added to the altar, along with the tools and
utinsels used each day, serapes, guitars or drums, gourds for carrying water and
cigars or cigarettes.
The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts
his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the
challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him Once he knows death
intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to
fear the darkness.
Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts
and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death's morbid side is
buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as
Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death.
altar, also called an "ofrenda," is the focal point to
observing the Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It is
constructed in the home and/or at the grave site or business
establishment. Entire families construct altars as an annual
commitment. Beginning in mid-October, children and adults prepare
to welcome the souls of their dead relatives and loved ones, who
return home at this time each year to make sure all is well and
that they have not been forgotton.
Preparation of the altar can be expensive, since anything placed
there for the visiting soul, including the dishes for food
offerings, must be new. The altar may be placed on a straw mat on
the floor or on a table.
altar consist for four levels and four sides, representing the
four stages of life, the four points of the earth, the four
seasons, and the four mathematical points upon which the pyramids
were built. Bases upon these four points the following items are