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Day of the Dead: a celebration to honor departed loved ones

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From pre-Columbian times, Mexico and other countries from Latin America have celebrated the Day of the Dead, a very special time when people remember their departed relatives. For many people, this tradition might be sad or even terrifying, but the truth couldn’t be more different, it is a beautiful festivity, a loving and cheerful day to remember those who have passed from our lives, and who we miss so much.

Creating an altar for Day of the Dead is the core of this tradition, and today we will give you a guide to create yours, step by step, so you can honor the spirits of your deceased loved ones.

Getting ready, let’s start with the checklist:

  • Picture – A picture of the departed relative is placed upon the altar to evoke their presence and revive their image.
  • Flowers – The altar is decorated with fresh cempasuchil or flor de muertos (flower of the dead) marigold flowers as it is believed that their scent will make the returning souls feel welcomed and happy.
  • Different Levels –In some areas altars are made with two levels that symbolize heaven and earth; in others they are made with three levels for heaven, purgatory, and earth; and there are places where altars with seven levels are placed, each of these levels represents the steps a soul has to make to arrive in heaven.
  • Chiseled Paper – The papel picado or chiseled paper are paper flags chiseled with saints’ figures or skulls and skeletons that are placed like a tablecloth on the altar. To some people they represent the element air for the way they move.
  • Day of the Dead Bread – Or pan de muertos is one of the most important elements in the altar as it is a fraternal offering to the souls in the Catholic sense.
  • Candy Skulls – Sugar, chocolate or amaranth seed skulls represent the death and its every moment presence.
  • Food – Families prepare the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones, the idea is that they’ll come back and enjoy them reunited with the family in spirit.
  • Spirited Drinks – Tequila, mezcal, and pulque (fermented agave juice) are offered to the adult souls so they can relax and enjoy with their family. If the honored one smoked a pack of cigarettes is then set on the altar.
  • Candles – Candles show the souls their way to the altar and back to the dead world; they symbolize the light, hope, and faith.
  • Religious Elements – The most common are crucifixes and Virgin Mary and patron saint images.
  • Petate – Petates (palm tree leaf woven carpets) are set aside for the souls to lie down and rest.
  • Water – A glass of water is set in the altar to calm the souls’ thirst after their long journey.
  • Copal – The resin of the tree that has the same name is burned to purify the place and to attract the souls with its sweet smell.
  • Salt – A small plate with salt is set on the altar as a purifier element.
  • Personal Objects – It is crucial to include tools, clothing, or toys into the offering to make him feel at home.
  • Ornaments – Candleholders, incense burners, papier mache or clay figurines such as skulls or skeletons doing a certain activity or animals. In some areas, a clay xoloitzcuintli dog is set on the altar to make the children souls feel protected as they arrive to the fete.

Now that we have all we need, let’s begin building it.

Step One: Use boxes, wood or even pieces of furniture to create the different levels and cover them with colorful paper picado.

Step Two: If you decided to go with the traditional 7 levels altar, this is the order to place all the elements:

1st Level (top) – Image of the Saint or Virgin of your choice

2nd Level – Dedicated to Souls in Purgatory

3rd Level – Salt to Kids Souls in Purgatory

4th Level – Day of the Dead bread

5th Level – The deceased’s favorites food and treats

6th Level – A large photograph of your loved one, smaller, informal snapshots can adorn the other levels.
7th Level – A cross that can be built with with fruit or sawdust.

Step Three: Light the candles and incense then prepare a path from the front door to the altar with petals of marigold to guide your loved one to the altar.

And you are set! Ready to honored the spirit of your loved ones, and remember, the most important is to celebrate life and the memory of those who are no longer with us, but that hasn’t left our hearts.

Happy Day of the Dead!

Click here to read more about this beautiful tradition.