When it comes to traditionally celebrating the Day of the Dead (Día de Los Muertos), there are key elements that should not be missing from your altar. If you are one of those who would like to start honoring your deceased loved ones according to Mexican tradition, this article is for you.
The Day of the Dead is a beautiful Mexican tradition that keeps the memory of our ancestors in gratitude, paying tribute to all they did for us.
If you have no idea where to start, don’t worry! We’ll start our first ofrenda together, and we’ll explain here the meanings behind each element. In less than you think, you’ll be ready to celebrate the tradition this November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2 (All Souls’ Day).
A tradition passed from generation to generation
I recall my mom putting these beautiful yellow-orange cempasúchil flowers (marigolds), alongside tamales and coffee for my late grandma Mami Flora, on her clean and decorated grave in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. At the time, I didn’t realize it was such an impactful, sweet, almost gothic-like tradition since we didn’t go as far as putting an altar in our home.
Now, I recognize it’s my responsibility to continue this wonderful tradition — and I definitely want to include the decorated and intentional altar for my grandma.
I want to follow my mom’s tradition — now including the important altar — so my children can understand and celebrate the holiday with even more depth when the time comes.
The meaning of the altar and the ofrendas
Day of the Dead dates back to the Aztec era and, according to History.com, the altars represent “all four elements of life: water, the food for the earth, the candle for fire, and for wind, papel picado — colorful tissue paper folk art with cut out designs to stream across the altar or the wall.”
This explains why the loved one’s favorite foods and beverages are showcased on their altar and graves. In my grandma’s case, it’s always her favorite combo of tamales and coffee.
The ofrendas become a beautiful connection because it goes beyond making them only for this day — it means whenever we make tamales, we share stories about her and connect to her soul.
One of the unique things about our Latin culture is the deeply-rooted tradition of remembering our ancestors.
Other elements you can add to your altar
Similarly, another item that is essential in your altar is the pan de muerto. According to Union Puebla MX, the meaning of the pan de muerto is the following: “the circle at the top of the bread is the skull, the shins are the bones, and the orange blossom flavor is for the memory of the deceased.”
Other featured items to include are sugar skulls and photos of your ancestors. Think of the happiest moments you have with them while you watch their framed photo.
Curious enough, for the beverage, many put their loved one’s favorite alcoholic drink or atole. I also have friends who put poems or letters to their loved ones or write down memories of them.
Additional decorations can go as far as anything they loved — did they have a favorite piece of clothing you might still have?
Every ofrenda is unique. Yes, they have their key elements, but what makes this tradition so special is your intention while making it.