How to Build Your Own Day of the Dead Altars

How to Build Your Own Day of the Dead Altars

A Celebration of Departed Loved Ones

While Halloween often takes center stage this time of year, the Mexican holiday, Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is also worth celebrating—even if you aren’t Mexican. That’s because this holiday honors deceased loved ones. According to National Geographic:

“Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.”

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The main component of the celebration is the Day of the Dead altars, or ofrendas, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping. Instead, they’re meant to welcome the spirits of deceased loved ones back to the realm of the living. And they’re loaded with offerings—water, food, family photos, and a candle for each deceased relative. If that deceased relative is a child, the Day of the Dead altars often include toys. Flowers adorn the altars and decorate the path from the altars to the gravesites. And the smell of incense fills the air. It comes from tree resin and it transmits prayers and purifies the air. If you’ve never experienced this holiday, you are certainly missing out on a feast for the senses!

If the idea of honoring your deceased loved ones by building Day of the Dead altars appeals to you, here is a step-by-step guide:

1. Choose the Location of Your Day of the Dead Altar
The first step to making Day of the Dead altars is, of course, choosing where you want to honor your loved one(s). You can use a table, a shelf or any other flat surface to build your altar. However, since food and candles are part of the Day of the Dead altars, you may want to build your altar high enough so it’s out of the reach of children and pets.

2. Get Inspiration
Search the Internet for inspiration. There are plenty of Pinterest boards including ideas for Day of the Dead altars. You’ll also find a number of craft tutorials, images of other people’s Day of the Dead altars, and other fun finds to help you really make your altar your own. You might even incorporate colors or items specific to your loved ones, or discover ideas you may not have thought of on your own.

3. Put Together Key Materials
Day of the Dead altars have a few key elements: an arch (often made from sugar cane), boxes and crates to create levels, a tablecloth, flowers (can be paper or fresh), and candles. The levels are particularly important: You can have two to represent heaven and earth; three to symbolize heaven, earth, and purgatory; or seven to denote the steps a soul must take in order to get to heaven.

4. Use Photos (or Don’t)
If you have photos of the loved ones you are honoring, add those to your Day of the Dead altars. Or, if you’re choosing to celebrate your ancestors in general, you might not use photos at all. The point is to make your altars specific to your family and your needs—there’s no right or wrong way to honor people who have passed. You could also paint or draw the people you want to commemorate if you don’t have images of them.

5. Add Food and Other Festive Details
Finally, you’ll add food to the altar as a feast for the spirits you’re celebrating. Typical cuisine for Day of the Dead altars includes pan de muertos (a sweet bread), hot chocolate, tamales, and fruit, but you can personalize these items if you wish by including the deceased’s favorite foods since they cannot enjoy food in the afterlife. You can also add any items or totems your loved one enjoyed or possessed and burn incense along with your candles. Sugar skulls, with glittery accents and vibrant colors, are also popular items to include in Day of the Dead altars.

No matter how you decorate your altar, remember that Dias de los Muertos is a celebration and not a time for mourning. The notion that our loved ones are always with us, even after they’ve crossed over into the spirit realm is beautiful, and one that we can all appreciate, no matter our culture or religious backgrounds.


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