traditional elements of a day of the dead altar

Traditional elements of a Day of the Dead altar


 Dia de los Muertos – Elements of Day of the Dead Altars in Sonora, Mexico

El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a Mexican tradition that interweaves ancient aspects of pre-Hispanic culture with Christian beliefs to create a unique annual event of remembrance for the departed.

Day of the Dead altars, also known as ofrendas (offerings), are constructed and adorned to remember, honor and please the dead, are a central symbol of the Dia de los Muertos. Altars can include a variety of symbols and items that are reminders of the deceased, or that were favorites of the honoree of the altar, but the first 12 items are considered to be fundamental requirements for an ofrenda.

1. Portrait of the Deceased and Images of Saints. A photo of the deceased for which the altar is paying tribute is placed at the top and in the middle of the altar. Images of saints serve as reminders of their role as intermediaries between the living, the dead and the “beyond.”

2. Water. Representative of the purity of the soul, and it is believed that the water will quench the thirst of thirsty spirits, to reinvigorate their energies for their journey into the beyond.

3. Bread. The most common food offering for the spirits, the most commonly used form of bread is called “pan de muerto,” (bread of the dead), a round loaf of bread that may be adorned in three colors in the forms of quills and bones, and then sprinkled with white sugar.

4. Fruit. This is to delight the soul, to include seasonal fruits such as apples (which represent the blood), pumpkin, hawthorn, sugar cane, jicama, etc.

5. Other Food and Beverages. The altar will include beverages, dishes and casseroles that the deceased enjoyed on earth. In addition to pleasing the departed, this element helps to recall memorable aspects of the deceased, and often include pulque, liquor, chocolate, tequila, wine or posole, a drink made from corn and honey.

6. Salt. It is believed that during the journey of the afterlife, the salt will prevent the body of the departed from breaking down as it travels along the winding road to eternity.

7. Cirios and Velas. These two types of candles each have their own meaning. The basic, unadorned parafin Cirio symbolizes the soul being alone, and are typically placed in a cross representing the cardinal points. Velas, which are typically in a glass container adorned with the image of a saint, serve as a guide to light the deceased’s way in the ascension of the spirit.

8. Marigolds. The Cempasuchil is the bright yellow Mexican marigold, also known as the flor de muerto, is the main floral adornment for gravesites and altars. Its strong scent and bright color (said to represent the Aztec sun god Tonotiuh) are believed to be an attraction to the spirits of the deceased as they come to visit their family on the Day of the Dead. The colorful orange and yellow hues of the marigold (either fresh or dried) are also believed to help the souls of the departed to keep their way along the path in the afterlife. 

9. Sugar skulls. As an example of the enlacing of pre-Hispanic and Christian elements that combine to define this tradition, the small sugar skulls symbolize Miquiztli, the God of death, as well as representing the victory of the Trinity. Sugar skulls typically have the name on the deceased on their forehead, are one of the most common items placed on the altars or offerings.

10. A Wooden Cross. The display of the Christian cross symbolizes the forgiveness of any remaining sins of the deceased.

11. Copal. The special fragrance of this ancient origin resin from a tree of the same name, has two meanings: the first is to purify the place of evil spirits where the altar is located, and the other is a connection with the sky – it is believed that as the aromatic smoke of the copal rises, it makes a connection with the dead.

12. Papel Picado. These are the colorful tissue paper rectangles that are cut to display Dia de Muertos designs and hung from string above altars, and places on the front and sides of altars

13. Tapete de Arena. Literally meaning “rug of sand,” a tapete de arena is a decoration on the ground in front of or on the side of a Day of the Dead altar. They can be made with sand, or with a variety of other materials like flowers, dirt, corn, beans, rice and lentils.

14. Petate. A petate is a bedroll woven from the palms of the petate palm, that is placed in front of the altar as a place to kneel in reflection, or pray.

15. Other adornments. A variety of colorful decorations, artwork, cardboard figures, ceramic skulls, crosses and other adornments made from real and paper flowers are added to the altar to add a festive element to this symbol of mourning and remembrance.

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