Altars: A welcoming for loved ones on Día de los Muertos

Learn about the significance of altars and how to make your own

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a two-day Mexican holiday that is focused on remembering and paying respects to loved ones who have passed. It is also celebrated in many places outside of Mexico. On Nov. 1 and 2, deceased family members and other loved ones return to Earth to visit. The first day celebrates children who have passed and the second celebrates adults.

It’s important to note that this is not “Mexican Halloween,” but a cultural celebration that’s rooted in Aztec beliefs. The Aztecs believed that death was a natural phase in a person’s life so the holiday focuses on the celebration of life rather than mourning. It has evolved over time and become the holiday that we’re familiar with today.

People build altars or ofrendas (offerings) as a way to welcome their loved ones back home. These altars are built in peoples’ homes, in public spaces, and in cemeteries at the tombs of the people they’re celebrating. There are some common items that are placed on altars.

•Pictures of loved ones.

•Favorite foods, often including fruit, pan dulce, other sweets and drinks like water, atole (a sweet hot corn drink) and even tequila.

•Flores de Muerto (Flowers of the Dead), otherwise known as marigolds. These are the holiday’s main flowers. Some people create a trail of orange marigold petals from their homes to their loved ones’ tombs to guide them back home.

•Sugar skulls. Some sugar skulls have the deceased’s name written across the forehead and they’re often gifted among friends and family.

•Papel picado, cutout tissue paper. The delicate tissue paper symbolizes the fragility of life and also symbolizes wind. The cutouts in the paper also provide a way for souls to travel through.

•Pan de muerto (bread of the dead). This is a special kind of bread made just for this holiday. They are often dusted in sugar and feature a skull and crossbones on top.

•Salt, believed to keep away evil spirits.

•Items belonging to or associated with the deceased. These are what really personalize each altar. Items might include clothing, toys, and other trinkets.

Altars are very personal and they don’t have to include all of these items. You can adorn yours with anything that you think your loved ones will enjoy. The point of this celebration is to honor and welcome those who have passed onto the afterlife.

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