Day of the Dead Altar
I’ve grown up in the South — in particular, San Antonio, Texas — with the Hispanic culture. And as unlikely as it might seem, my Northern European family (my parents were first generation Americans; my grandparents were from Scandinavia) adopted a number of Mexican traditions in terms of food, clothing, and some miscellaneous celebratory practices in our years of living there.
But to my memory, we never made a Day of the Dead altar. Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a Mexican tradition of remembering and honoring the dead on November 1 and 2. It’s believed that during that time, the souls of the dearly departed temporarily return from the dead (here’s a great article from National Geographic to learn more).
Central to Day of the Dead is the altar, or ofrenda (“offering”). It’s not an altar in the sense of worshipping, rather it’s meant to welcome the deceased back to the realm of the living. And it’s filled with all sorts of items, some that are traditionally included and others at the whim of its creator. Here are some of the traditionally included items:
Photographs: Pics of the dearly departed (I have my parents’ pics on my altar)
Personal Items: Small Items either owned by the deceased or evocative of them (I included one of my father’s old prayer books, a heart-shaped rock with crosses on it, a hand-written recipe of my mother’s, and a sewing accessory)
Candles: Symbolizing light, hope, and faith — also guiding the souls to and from the altar
Different Levels: Two levels symbolize heaven and earth (that’s what I opted to create), while three levels symbolize heaven, purgatory, and earth. Very intricate altars can have 7 levels.
Flowers: The scent of fresh flowers is believed to make returning souls feel welcomed and happy. Marigolds are the traditional flower — I have a pot of marigolds and some colorful paper flowers.
Food: Various foods can include the deceased’s favorite dishes or simply traditional foods like tamales, fruits, desserts, Day of the Dead bread, and sugar skulls.
Drinks: This can range from a glass of water for thirsty souls to adult beverages like tequila, mezcal, and other libations.
Religious items: Crucifixes, Virgin Mary, and patron saint objects are the most common
Salt: A small plate of salt is a purifying element.
Chiseled Paper: Chiseled paper or papel picado are paper flags chiseled with saint figures or skulls and skeletons
Ornaments: Candle holders, incense burners, and papier mache or clay figurines — calaveras are very popular
These are some of the items I rounded up for my own altar:
I cleared off a small table top in my dining room and added a small wooden bench on top of it to create the two levels signifying heaven and earth (and I can’t help myself — as a designer, I like things to be on different elevations and not totally flat). I included many of the traditional items but not all of them — I’ve seen many of my friends’ altars and they all differ, so it’s not like you have to follow a strict set of rules or anything.
More than not, however, my aim is to respect the original intent and cultural context of this beautiful tradition — to honor and remember two people (my parents) in a very visual way. My altar says, “I love you, Mom and Dad, and I’ll always remember you.”
And while it may evoke a brief sense of sadness or wistfulness, I created my Day of the Dead altar as a way of giving thanks for the legacy of my parents, and it made me happy not only to create it but also every time I walk past it. It’s a ritual to light the candles after the sun goes down, and to give thanks for the lives of the people who gave me life and taught me the value of it.
Do you have a special tradition to remember and honor those you love? Let me know in the comments!