Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is widely known as the Mexican tradition to honor loved ones who have passed away. It is believed that each year on November 1 & 2 the gate between the spirit world and the mortal world dissolves so families can welcome back their deceased loved ones for a visit. This is usually done through lively celebrations. Despite the subject matter revolving around death the holiday here in Mexico is anything but sad or scary. The idea is to celebrate the lives of those who have passed & honor them rather than it being a time of intense mourning.
The holiday spanning over several days is not Mexico’s version of Halloween. As a blended Canadian & Mexican family we have been trying to do our best to recognize and celebrate both holidays in various ways so I always find the last week of October to beginning of November can be a busy one in our home. This is exactly what it means for my daughter to be growing up Canexican! Halloween for us includes decorating the outside of our house, carving a pumpkin and dressing up in a fun unique costume and going out to Trick or Treat door to door in the neighbourhood for candy. The way people recognize Dia de los Muertos in Mexico can look different across the country ranging from what are seen as quite unusual traditions like visiting gravesites, having a picnic at the cemetery where your loved one resides, the ritual of cleaning a loved one´s skeleton 3 years after burial to the more common traditions of creating an altar at home and eating Pan de Muerto (a sweet bread only baked & served for Dia de los Muertos). Each year we usually find a special Day of the Dead related event to attend and this year we worked on our first altar at home.
If you haven´t seen the Disney movie Coco yet I highly recommend it as they do a great job highlighting many of the Day of the Dead traditions in a way everyone can understand, even kids. If you´re already familiar with Coco then you´ll know much of the movie revolved around the idea that a loved one was not able to cross back to the living world as he was ¨forgotten¨ since his photo wasn´t present on his family´s altar or ofrenda in their home.
It´s quite easy to make your own altar at home so your loved ones can find their way back to you. It doesn´t need to be elaborate, perfect or a ton of money spent on doing it either. This was actually our first year creating a proper altar in our home and we were able to pull everything together that we needed in just a day. There are a few main elements to represent (earth, wind, fire & water). Here is a list of items to try and include in your own altar or ofrenda at home with the meanings behind each one…
- Multiple tiers…Ideally an altar will have 7 tiers but at the very least should have 3 tiers symbolizing the steps to heaven. We symbolically made a very simple altar using the shelves of a storage unit and some small wooden craft boxes for the photos to sit on. The various tiers represent the division between heaven, earth and purgatory (where most Catholics believe souls first go after death to start the purification process).
- Photographs…A photograph of a loved one is one of the most important elements as it´s believed to be their ticket or invitation back to the living world. In a time when so few of us have printed photos anymore I personally love the idea of having a tangible photo of loved ones as I can feel how the portrait itself sitting on the altar acts as a way to reconnect us all. It serves as a visual cue and reminder to the living while helping to guide loved ones in the right direction.
- Water…Water represents one of the 4 elements of earth and is believed to be necessary to help quench the thirst of any loved ones who have made the long journey crossing over for a visit. You can put out water as well as any other beverage that was loved by your family members. In our case my father-in-law was a big Coca Cola drinker so a bottle of Coke was a must as well as some coffee for abuelita!
- Candles…Candles represent the element of fire and are needed to light the path to guide the spirits home. You can use any candle you already have or purchase some new ones. Ideally candles in glass jars or containers are used as they are safer to keep lit for long periods of time without the wax spilling all over. You can look for Dia de Muertos specific candles in a store near you or just buy plain white candles.
- Food…This one you can really have some fun with and it falls under the Earth element category. A popular addition to all ofrendas here is Pan de Muerto which is a sweet bread sprinkled with sugar with an X across the top representing bones and a circle in the middle representing tears that have been shed. Despite living in Mexico and being surrounded by sweet bread options everywhere I go I´m actually not a huge fan of baked goods and pastries but I really do love a good piece of Pan de Muerto. The round loaves are baked with a hint of anise and orange blossom water so they smell heavenly and are absolutely delicious. You can also put out any other special food items your loved ones may be craving. In our case I made sure to include chocolate for my grandmother who died when I was quite young but was always told she was a dedicated chocoholic. We also left some carrots out for our pet rabbit Turbo, some fruit and candies for everyone to enjoy.
- Flowers…Here in Mexico the week or so leading up to Dia de Muertos there is an abundance of fresh marigold or cempasúchil flowers being sold all over. You can find these marigold varieties being sold potted or in bouquets either in flower shops, most grocery stores or on street corners. I absolutely love the bright orange cempasúchils and they are said to be a colour associated with joy and celebrations. Their strong fragrance also helps attract spirits to the altar. If you´re not able to find marigolds in your hometown you can definitely use any flower. Choose something that smells great and makes you smile every time you see them displayed next to the photos of your loved ones. Alternatively you can also use artificial flowers especially if you have pets who go after real flowers.
- Papel Picado…Papel picado is the perforated tissue paper banners you often see hanging over streets here in Mexico during a festival. The paper usually has a design punched out on it through a series of tiny holes. These banners specifically for Dia de Muertos often have pictures of catrinas on them (a tall fancy female skeleton which has become an international symbol for the holiday) representing the element of wind and allow spirits to pass through the holes. We didn´t have any papel picado handy and I didn´t feel like going to the big busy market where it´s sold so we improvised and used a skull banner we already had and some small wooden boxes we found at a local craft store with a papel picado type of design on them. We painted the boxes and used them to prop up each framed photo we put out on display
- Butterflies…Monarch butterflies are believed to hold the spirits of the departed so this is often a bonus element added to ofrendas. Since monarchs are migratory they tend to arrive in Mexico for the winter starting on the 1st of November. Since their arrival coincides with Dia de los Muertos it was believed that they carried spirits with them.
- Sugar Skulls, Calavaras & La Catrina…Sugar skulls are another item that´s pretty easy to find here in Mexico. In October most grocery stores including big box stores like Walmart, Chedarui & Soriana will carry these hard skulls decorated with colourful icing. Most often they´re made of sugar but you can also find decordated skulls made of chocolate or amaranth. They are edible not normally eaten and are meant more to be used just as decoration to adorn gravesites and altars with a sugary treat for returning souls. Skulls and skeletons in all form, including the famous La Catrina, have also very much become a notable symbol of the holiday and are found printed on tablecloths, candles, frames or small sculptures.
- Copal or incense…Burning copal is thought to be another way of guiding loved ones to your altar through its strong aroma. Many people also just love the scent of it and find the smell relaxing & comforting.
- Mat, rug or stool…You can place a small area rug, mat, chair or stool by your altar for loved ones to rest after the long journey to the living world. Our altar is just outside our front door so we have left a stepping stool in place for our daughter Isla to easily tend to the altar which also doubles as a rest area for visiting souls.
- Other special items…You can leave out any other special items that had meaning to your loved ones that may help bring them back and give them joy while they are here. For adults that may mean things like a musical instrument, trinkets or cigarettes. For children and pets it would usually include a favourite toy.
It can be quite overwhelming if you´re trying to make an altar last minute so keep it simple but it´s still worth doing. You can start with some of the most basic and important elements this year like photos, candles, water & snacks. You can even order items now to have them ready to add to your altar next year. There is no right or wrong way of doing things. If you have time you can also easily run out to buy the few extra items you might need or order them online. Altars are typically set up on October 30th or 31st and taken down on November 3rd. It´s said that souls arrive over the days in order. First it´s those who died a violent death, then lost souls, babies & children and then all other adults.
We just recently lost a close family member so we felt it was important to remember & celebrate him through an altar in our home and I´m so glad we did it. Creating the altar with my daughter has been almost therapeutic and a nice way to make both of us not feel as helpless and sad with such a heavy life event we had no control over. We shared stories with her as we were creating the altar and now from time to time as we admire it. We weren´t able to include every single element this year but the most important part was devoting time to the memory of a loved one and giving us a moment to smile and think about them all each time we pass the altar.
Here are a few links to online items you can purchase to create your own ofrenda at home ranging from full kits to individual items such as artificial flowers, tiered altar bases, LED candles with a timer & remote control (perfect if you have pets or small children) and picado paper...