Day of the Dead, also known as Dia De Los Muertos, is a centuries-old holiday celebrated in Mexico to remember friends and family members who have died. It is a time for the spirits of deceased loved ones to return home and visit, feast on their favorite foods, and listen to their favorite music.
Many mistake Day of the Dead for a Halloween celebration, but it is actually a custom deeply rooted in the history of the Mexican culture. Before the Spanish colonized Mexico, the local Aztecs held rituals overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead, during the month of August to celebrate the harvest and honor the dead. The Spanish tried to eradicate this custom, but were unsuccessful. Instead, the tradition became fused with the Catholic All Saints Day, and now occurs on November 2.
An important part of the Day of the Dead is the altar erected in the home commemorating the deceased. Making a Day of the Dead altar can be a way for you to honor the life of someone who was important to you, or to remember your ancestors. There are no strict rules about how the altar should be made. Be creative and make something that looks attractive and meaningful. Here's a list of traditional items used to create a Day of the Dead altar:
1. Start with a platform. This can be a table, boxes, bookshelf, etc. Place a tablecloth on it.
2. Make an arch. Traditional altars consist of an arcos, or arch, covered with marigold flowers. The arch represents the passage between life and death and the arching heavens.
3. Place a photo of the person(s) to be honored on the altar. Decorate with mementos that reflect the individual(s). You can also omit photographs of particular people and it will be understood that the altar represents all of your ancestors.
4. A glass of water: Water is a source of life and represents purity. It quenches the thirst of the spirits who are returning home from a long journey.
5. Candles represent light, faith and hope. A candle is lit for each dead family member, and one extra so that no one is left out. Sometimes, four or more candles are placed together to form a cross, which represents the cardinal directions, so that the spirits can find their way. Purple represents pain, pink celebration, and white hope. (Use a candle holder to make sure you don’t burn down the house.)
6. You can place flowers in vases, or pull the petals out and scatter them over all the surfaces of the altar. It is believed that the fragrance of cempasuchil (marigolds) leads the spirits home, and their scent and imagery are synonymous with Day of the Dead. Flowers, symbolizing the brevity and impermanence of life, are often massed and fashioned into garlands, wreaths and crosses to decorate the altar and the grave.
7. Skulls are very common decorations as the iconic representation of death. Three skulls, which represent the trinity, can be placed side by side. Decorated sugar skulls represent the departed soul and usually have the name written on the forehead.
8. Place seasonal fruits and special bread called pan de muertos on the altar, along with other foods that the person enjoyed in life. The food is a feast that is laid out for the dead to enjoy. It is believed that they consume the scents and the essence of the food.
9. It is customary to burn copal incense, which clears the space of any negative energy or bad spirits, and helps the dead find their way. You can also burn sage.
10. Grooming items. A bar of soap, a towel, perfume and the like are placed on the altar in the belief that the dead ones have been on a long journey, and would like to refresh themselves for the celebration.
11. Salt is considered the spice of life and is one of the staples that should be left at the altar.
If you don't have time or the materials to make an elaborate altar, you can make a simple one with just a photo, two candles, some flowers and fruit. The important thing is that it's meaningful to you.